‘Assisted self-portraits’ is a method of portrait photography I have developed, it began as this collaborative photo story created in May 2020 by Charlie Fitz and Oscar Vinter. The photo story was first published in the Able Zine newsletter. Check out Able Zine's newsletter on 'Care in the time of crisis' here.
I am an artist, writer and sick and disabled woman. My partner, Oscar Vinter, is a neurodiverse artist and writer. We continually learn from one another. We have sited our relationship in a bubble of our own making, housed in an immaterial space of disability pride and radical acceptance and we support each other in working through and against internalised shame towards self love. We are partners in art and life and recognise the privilege of the safe space we have created together.
There are elements of personal care in our relationship. I am the recipient. We do not struggle with that part of our relationship, it came naturally; however, we do struggle with societal perceptions and cultural representations of relationships and care. Art and creative expression are how we survive; sickness and care are just the facts of our life. In our safe space the lines between physical care, intimacy and artistic collaboration blur. Perhaps they don’t even exist, fictitious cultural ideas imposed on us.
We are often confronted with offensive assumptions, conflating personal care with the desexualisation of the cared for individual. There seems to be a few roots to this; infantilising the sick and/or disabled, shame of bodily function and straight up ignorance.
Examples of infantilising: “Their body is too fragile, is it safe to have sex?” “Having a sexual relationship with a disabled person is tantamount to taking advantage of them.” - This assumes the disabled person has no desire or sexual autonomy.
Examples of shaming: “How could someone find you attractive after helping you clean up your shit.” “Why would someone want to have sex with someone with prolapsing or failing pelvic and gastrointestinal organs.”
Examples of Ignorance: “Can they even have sex?”
Bowel Incontinence Is My Normal
Assisted self-portrait & textiles October 2019
As a sick womxn my quality of life, desires and sexual pleasure have rarely been addressed in a medical setting, the issue of my fertility on the other hand is ever present. Instead of asking the female patient what they want from their lives, motherhood is always presumed.
Assisted self-portrait & textiles May 2020
I grew up ashamed of my desire, my body, my bowels, my hunger, how loud I was and the space I took up. Becoming a sick and disabled womxn this shame was heightened. My bodily functions became more unpredictable, harder to hide. I was more aware of the space I took up as an inconvenience. i.e. Passengers on a train voicing impatience whilst waiting for my wheelchair to board or frustration at having to make space.
I felt shame at no longer wanting motherhood, something I had previously grieved for.
As I work through this shame. I know that my life is too painful and precarious not to enjoy cake and orgasms when I have access to them.
All 3 pieces focus on shame, sickness & womxnhood. Through their production we explored the nature of art, intimacy and care within our relationship. The first piece was before I began using the term ‘assisted self-portrait’. I created and stage the image and gave detailed direction whilst Oscar photographed, contributing his own creative eye. To refer to these images as self-portraits would erase Oscar’s vital role. The term ‘assisted’ is an ironic nod to the ‘care’ element at the heart of the work. ‘I require physical assistance, aids and prompting’ are keywords government assessors look for when judging sick and disabled individuals for the Personal Independence Payment.
The final two images were created during the current Coronavirus lockdown. In response to the onslaught of online toxic positivity and implicated shaming in the form of productivity during quarantine. With so many able- bodied people now homebound by the pandemic, it feels as though the chronically ill, often isolated way of life is being held under a microscope; particularly in online spaces. In this unique moment my need to create work resisting shame has felt more urgent.