2 November 2015
Hackney Museum plays host to Picture Taking: Exploring Myself Through Photography, an exhibition featuring the work of pupils from a local SEN school. Reviewer, Richard Downes finds the show raises difficult questions about representation.
"This review is a representation... This representation is a lie…"
DAO's event listing tells me the exhibition is linked to Black History Month and UK Disability History Month. This seems to be a mere coincidence, or worse a lazy tag on. It is not listed on the official websites. The listing tells me further "Photography offers a voice to people who find everyday communication a challenge. Features the work of Emma, Qwayne, Mohammed, Jason, Izu and Luke, students at The Garden School in Hackney, which supports children with special educational needs, many with an autistic spectrum disorder". This is repeated in the display and goes to the nub of my problem.
I am also told that the photographers are Sam and Jack – not the students named above. I believe I see them both in the video that accompanies the photographs. Jack is fair, blue eyed, enthusiastic. Sam, raven-haired rolling stone lookalike, is more introspected. Neither are black, not is it clear whether or not they see themselves as disabled people. They both seem to be able to engage and take a mighty portrait. In fact, it is my belief the portraits on display are the work of Sam and Jack.
A poky little corner shows snappy snaps taken by the students. They are self-referential, abstractions revealing the smallness of a world where the gaze is largely downward. They talk of bus rides, the usefulness of signs, the things we take, the things we treasure. But what do these photographs communicate?
Emma is sitting on a bus, she is looking at her fingernails. They are pink. They are chipped, haven’t been painted for a while. Maybe Emma would like them painted again; maybe she likes to have them painted or it’s something she prefers to do for herself. Are they chipped because Emma does not like them painted or does like them painted but not in that colour? Is she pointing her hand out to show the limits of the world she lives in? How does she feel about the blurred deck she sits on? Photographs communicate everything and yet photographs communicate nothing. We can only make assumptions.
WARNING 1: “Photographs may indeed be evidence, but evidence of what exactly?” Jennifer L. Mnookin
WARNING 2: "We can only see what we are looking for and we look for what is already in our mind.” Alphonse Bertillon
And I assume everything. I assume I am seeing a sense of fun in engaging with a photographic project, that I am seeing the students becoming increasingly involved, becoming more trusting of the camera as a recorder and as a tool.
I am picking up on a sense of movement in Mohamed's work, stillness in Qwayne's, a love of self in Luke's. Care-workers, family members, school and home. All is revealed. Yet all is hidden too. Did the students prefer the portraits Sam and Jack took and themselves decide that these would take prominence on the museum walls?
I am taking my own trip. I am on the 106. I have seen cameras in photographs. I have seen clickers that allow for self-portrait, I see expensive tools, a resource, a giver of power. The digital age cuts costs after initial outlays and I am wondering if Jason or Izu have their own cameras, if they will take another picture now term time is over?
And my political hackles have been raised. I do not believe in these representations. These representations seem somehow to be a lie. Leaving Hackney I believe I see a tower block one of the students’ lives in. Above it, a window points south east. The flat looks a shambles but is no less interesting for that.
Somehow, I am reminded that my favourite picture of the year was taken by someone with learning difficulties who was asked to represent what having his class closed by cuts would mean to him. His classmates took pictures of each other, the school, the processes they were involved in. He shot a closed door. Just a boring, ordinary, white door. But somehow it spoke to me of entrance, of exit, of possession or of being locked out. And more than this besides. In Picture Taking: Exploring Myself Through Photography I would have liked to have seen the door opened wider.