The world seen from a wheelchair is full of shoulder bags, beer bellies, elbows and children’s faces.
It’s a world that the able bodied rarely see, but has been captured for a new exhibition by street photographer Adam Summerscales, who was born with cerebral palsy. The 23-year-old, who is also profoundly deaf, wanted to show what it means to be disabled. He explains: “Disabled people struggle all their lives to adapt to the able person’s world. All I can see when I go down the street is bums, tums and torsos. I want to raise awareness and to give people a better understanding of disability.”
Adam is studying for a masters degree in photography at Huddersfield University and currently showing his work in the Photography Gallery at Dean Clough Galleries in Halifax. It is his first major solo exhibition.
His collection of 30 high-quality black and white prints, entitled Human Forest, was taken from his final year degree project. “It focuses on my point of view, my perspective,” says Adam, who took around 5,000 shots and visited a number of cities, including Newcastle, Chester and York, as well as Huddersfield, to gather material. While most of the images are of headless able-bodied adults, just occasionally a disabled person appears in the background, peering through the forest of arms, bodies and bags.
Because he is unable to walk more than short distances, Adam has a mobility scooter that he uses around the campus and while working. The scooter has been specially adapted with a fixed ‘tripod’ for his camera and because of this he is able to capture pin-sharp images. It is the quality of his work that the selection panel at Dean Clough admired - and the way his project highlights the feeling of frustration and invisibility wheelchair users can experience when navigating through city streets.
Adam has battled with his disabilities since childhood. He estimates he has had around 16 or 17 operations, mainly to release spasticity in his body, and is scheduled for more. He attended a school for the deaf in Boston Spa and had his first cochlear implant at the age of nine, the second when he was 18. But, as he explains, the procedure doesn’t restore ‘normal’ hearing because it uses different pathways in the brain to those from a natural ear. “I had to learn how to hear and make sense of the noises I was hearing,” said Adam, who has full time support from a British Sign Language interpreter, Mandy Ward, at university. Remarkably, despite being born with no hearing at all, Adam can speak as well as communicate through sign language.
As a teenager he studied print-based media at York College before embarking on his degree in photography in Huddersfield. Street photography appealed to him straight away, although it has its downsides. “For one of the pictures in Human Forest I sat for 20 minutes in York city centre in freezing cold weather and then I saw what I wanted,” he explained.
Inspired by the work of American photographer Kevin Connolly, who was born without legs and is famous for his collection of images that show other people’s reactions to his disability, Adam’s MA is taking a similar theme. While his Human Forest images show ‘headless’ adults his MA photographs will be of faces, “capturing them when they look at me but don’t know they are being photographed”, to show reactions to his disability. “People often give me funny or confused looks,” he explains.
Adam is passionate about his work and sees it as a voice for the disabled. His own disabilities have informed his work since the first year at university when he looked at the hand shapes created by someone ‘talking’ in sign language. In the second year he created a series of images that poked ironic fun at the lack of access to buildings and activities for disabled people. The paired images show Adam unable to climb a staircase/go skateboarding etc and then photo-shopped with wings or using his wheelchair in daring ways.
“I use my disability as a platform for my work,” he says, “you never seen any disabled photographers.” But he doesn’t want to make disability itself the subject of his work, as another American photographer, Garry Winogrand, did during the 1930s. “He photographed disabled people and used them as a subject,” said Adam, “but I want to do things the other way round – a disabled person photographing able bodied people to invite them into my world.” He would ultimately like to work as a photographer for charities.
Certainly, his career is off to a good start. Last year his work was recognised by the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield when he was selected to be one of eight UK students invited to the gallery to talk about his photography. And now his images can be seen at Dean Clough, considered to be one of the Yorkshire’s most prestigious galleries, until January 22, 2017.