Blog Home Contributor Respectfully Document Disabilities in the Workplace Through Photography

Three photographers and the charity Sightsavers provide valuable insight on documenting both visible and non-visible disabilities in every workplace.

From online news outlets to businesses around the world, stock photos are widely used for seemingly endless purposes. The images found on stock marketplaces, like Shutterstock, grab the attention of the audience. As we become more and more visual than ever, these images support the stories we’re trying to tell. In this article, we’re discussing the importance of accurately and respectfully documenting disabilities in the workplace for stock marketplaces. 

Woman Working at Home in Wheelchair
Learn the importance of accurately and respectfully photographing disabled persons in their workplaces. Image by Pressmaster.

We had a conversation about disabilities and photography with Sightsavers, a global organization fighting for disability rights. Three photographers also provided valuable insight on documenting both visible and non-visible disabilities, and how to respectfully capture and keyword images depicting disabilities for stock. 

Tip #1: Ask Questions and Get to Know Your Models

“People are often afraid of things they do not know much about,” says Ceridwen Hughes, a mother, photographer, and founder of Same but Different, an organization that uses the arts to ensure a “positive social change,” and partners with other organizations to highlight inequalities and improve the conversation around it. Hughes shares that her son has a “rare disease called Moebius,” and noted that it’s very stressful to see people take photos and say things like “smile” or “look at me” as she says those two are impossible for her son.

That said, don’t be afraid. Photographing folks with disabilities, be it visible or non-visible, can be overwhelming for some photographers. Instead of fearing the idea of it, have a conversation with your subjects. Actually get to know them. It’s easier to shoot when the person in front of your camera is not a complete, total stranger.

Ask Your Models Questions
Ask your models what they are comfortable with. Image by AnnaStills.

Tip #2: Capture Your Subjects in Authentic and Natural Moments

Hughes noted that whenever photographing someone, she doesn’t “try to hide their disability,” but also doesn’t “make it the sole focus either.” She adds, “I prefer to subtly reference the disability so it might be a glimpse of a wheelchair, a slight profile of a physical difference, or some hint to an invisible illness.” An invisible illness can refer to a mental or cognitive difference that may not be visible in photographs including autism spectrum disorder, psychiatric disabilities, chronic fatigue, and more.

This is very important. Photographer Chona Kasinger also noted how she tries to “capture folks in an authentic and natural way,” which can be achieved by being creative and communicating with your subjects. Keeping the images as authentic as possible is not just about showcasing the subject well. It’s also about putting out the kind of work many people can relate to.

Capture Authentic Moments
Sometimes, it’s the small details that make the most impact. Image by Lamzinvnikola.

Elea Chang, founder of Disabled And Here, added that, “many photographers — particularly non-disabled photographers — make the same mistake of overemphasizing the disability while ignoring the subject’s humanity and environment.” When this happens, the image loses its authenticity and the photographer has failed to do their job of accurately conveying the story of the subject.

Tip #3: Don’t Generalize Disabilities

Perhaps the most common image of a person with a disability is someone sitting in a wheelchair. This is the kind of image all stock photography websites have. And, while there’s nothing wrong with that, it would be better if photographers would refrain from generalizing all disabilities. Some folks use wheelchairs, some have speech challenges. There are so many disabilities and the people living with them still have the right to be employed. Thus, when photographing disabilities in the workplace, shoot with intention. Don’t generalize and showcase these people as one and the same.

When considering invisible disabilities, that is disabilities that are not immediately apparent, consider how you photograph your model in certain situational themes. For example, anxiety disorders in the workplace may depict your model doing calm-inducing practices at their desk such as drinking tea or meditating in between meetings. Depicting post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, may include the use of a support dog in the workplace.

Don't Generalize Disabilities
No two disabilities look the same. Ensure you are documenting a full spectrum of cognitive and physical disabilities. Image by Altrendo Images.

Tip #4: Collaborate with Your Models 

“Whether the photographer themselves are disabled or not, images will always be more authentic when photographers have more context about and familiarity with their subject,” says Chang. “There needs to be more photos of disabled people in moments of daily joy, peace, and routine,” she added.

This is to say, don’t be afraid to have conversations with your subject. Feel free to ask what they’re comfortable with and what they don’t like. Even better, ask how they want to be photographed.

“To depict disability more accurately, photographers should approach the project collaboratively and work with subjects to make sure that the participants’ perspectives and lives are being appropriately centered, rather than the photographer or publication’s own idea of what disabled life might be like,” says Chang.

Collaborate with Your Models
Have a conversation with your models about what their day-to-day looks like. Image by hedgehog94.

Tip #5: See Past the Disability — See the Person

“I have photographed many children, some with extremely complex needs, and I found it easier to have a focus other than the camera,” shares Hughes. And, in difficult situations like this, a photographer should be creative. When shooting an image of, say, a teacher teaching kids with disabilities, make it a point to see those children as who they are rather than ultimately labeling them as “disabled kids.”

“I think one of the main things people may struggle with is seeing past the disability and making that the focus of their image,” she says. Make it a point to not just see someone in a wheelchair, but understand how it affects them personally. “They are often able to highlight things that I may not have considered and it makes the difference between what an able-bodied person assumes and the reality of living or working with a disability,” Hughes added.

Tip #6: Champion Equality All the Time

Photographing disabilities in the workplace doesn’t always mean having a disabled person as the sole subject. Oftentimes, there’s an able-bodied person captured in the frame, as well. This may not seem like an issue, but sometimes, photographers tend to highlight one over the other.

“If there’s a disabled person and a non-disabled person in a photograph together, you can often tell which is which, even when the disability is invisible, because the lighting, angles, and overall photograph tend to be more flattering towards the non-disabled person,” shares Chang. That said, be cautious when photographing people in workplaces. Be mindful of how you compose your images.

See Past the Disability
The person should always come first, not the disability. Image by Goran Bogicevic.

Tip #7: Create Realistic Situations and Themes

With the desire to produce content showcasing folks with visible and non-visible disabilities, many photographers, especially able-bodied ones, tend to end up creating unrealistic scenarios. This especially happens when you don’t slow down and listen to your subjects—when you don’t communicate and collaborate with them.

So, whether you’re shooting at a workplace or elsewhere, double-check on the set you’re creating. Be sure the props you use are relevant to the people you’re photographing. Also, allot time to build a friendship with your subjects to avoid creating unrealistic scenarios in your shots.

Highlight Support for People with Disabilities
Create scenes that highlight support for people living with disabilities, visual or not. Image by Alex Mazilu.

Tip #8: Be an Ally — Highlight Strengths Above All

“As interviewers and photographers at Sightsavers, we want to ensure we are being an ally and not causing harm through the images we create. This also extends to anyone we hire,” says Kate McCoy, content strategist at Sightsavers.

As an ally, it’s the photographer’s job to showcase the strength in the disability. “Photographers need to take time to understand what matters to their subject and how they would, themselves, describe their experiences with disability, as it is so unique to every person,” McCoy added, further noting that it’s important to remember “that every person is so much more than the challenges they face.”

Cover image by Lamzinvnikola.

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