The Cultural Experience of Disability: an Interview with Peter Mansell



7 minutes reading

In his series Paralysis Un-seen, British photographer Peter Mansell (b. 1958) extends an invitation to observe and understand disability as a cultural experience. Mansell has been for years an activist for disabled people's rights, and photography became a means to spread a political message but also a very personal one. The diversity of his visual language is combined with text to give the viewer tools to fathom his experience. In this interview, we speak with him about the distinction between impairment and disabling factors, and how to translate a new vision of disability into images, from the inside out.

How did you conceive your project?

I was injured when I was 20 years old, now I'm 59, and I spent much of my adult life around the politics of disability, promoting a distinction between my impairment, my physiological condition, and the social barriers that don't recognise me, which actually create the ‘disability’. Photography has helped me express this concept in a new way and to reach out to people who might not connect with the issue through a wholly political prism. I started questioning myself, about how to articulate a message through photography and got interested in visual communication. I wanted to create images that were a spectacle in themselves and to treat them as a discourse that meant something.

You say that despite the broadness of the internet, disability is still not much talked about, at least not in a constructive way.

The art world largely focuses on looking but they don't see my experience. You would think that everything has been shown because of the Web but when I looked for things that related to my experience artistically, rather than politically or documentary, I could find few.

How do you think we have arrived at the common representation of disability?

We are all pressurized in the media into seeing ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’ as one concept – through the body. You'll never see a picture that connotes disability to a non-disabled person without a trigger in it, and the common trigger is the body. If you search the term ‘disabled’, you'll find it brings back to the body or symbolism around the body, and that's frustrating because it denies a massive part of my reality. But if you remove the body you force people to think about the cultural experience. Yet, the images still need a trigger to connote the cultural issues around disability, otherwise non-disabled people will miss the point.

Your work starts with a diptych of your torso though.

I have included two pictures of my torso at the beginning of the book to make a statement about photography. In one, I'm sitting up, I have a fat belly, and in the other one, I don't, because I'm leaning back. The camera’s truth is not objective and that’s the point.

How are you approaching photography as a medium, in order to actually translate your message?

Conceptually by working outward from my body, my environs and then looking at society as a whole. For example, in the chapter My Home, there's a picture of a flower vase full of night bag tubes, which stands for incontinence. I wouldn't have understood that if I wasn't disabled, but even people who haven't got an interest in disability politics, will question what do they see and why is it in there. I want to express something of me, in this particular instance that I'm doubly incontinent, which is a pain in the ass, but it also expresses something of my cultural experience.

I feel like the distinction between the terms ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’ is the key to understanding your project.

Exactly. If you and I look at the same landscape, what you'll see is the architecture, the form, the man-made construction. What I see are the socially constructed barriers: I'll check if there are some steps, if there's a ramp, I ask myself how will I move about in that environment. That's the disabling factor, the man-made barriers, not the fact that my spinal cord is damaged and I can't walk. That's about my impairment, something I do not deny but I need to be able to manage in order to have a successful life, and that's made possible by how society recognizes me as a citizen. Before photography I only understood my experience as a disabled person through the prism of politics, rather than conceiving it as a cultural experience that could be expressed through art.

What do you mean when you say the “cultural experience” of disability?

My experience as a disabled person is affected by the place and time in history I live in and the social class I belong to. Disabled people’s experiences are determined by people's attitudes, organizations/institutions and the way they work with us, the physical environment and society. What my work is really about is this experience. I mean, when I was injured, in 1978, there were two types of wheelchair. Now, there are over 50 types you can choose from, my whole kit is culturally influenced and affects the quality of my life and my ability to interact with you. That's what I'm trying to get people to see in my work and think about, the intersections between how I practically manage my impairment and the way the domestic, urban and social environments influence my experience.

You’ve organized the images in the series into chapters that have different titles. How do you see the impact of this?

I wanted to make a resolved body of work that expressed my fullest experience. I knew that the images wouldn't all have a similar form: some would be triptychs, some would be highly geometrical, or abstract, some are more documentary and in others I would intervene digitally. My experience starts in my brain and in my body, so I started from the individual and I gradually moved outward. So the chapters are: My Kit, My Home, My Street, My Country, My Outlook, My Feelings, My Community and My Dreams, etc. This conceptual approach gave a consistency to the different styles of imagery. Moreover, there is no picture that actually shows a whole wheelchair or me in full. I've tried to move away from the usual representation of disability to show how I relate with everything/everyone else by looking outward. For example, there are two images of my and my neighbour's house. One is straight and the other has overlapped symbols. I get on really well with my neighbours but I can't even knock on their door because there are steps, so they always have to come to me, and that interferes with our relationship.

In the chapter My Country, you’re showing images with more or less visible symbols of wheelchairs in the photographs. Can you tell us something about the intentions of this chapter, which is so evidently about your cultural experience?

I want to build meaning through the relationships between images. Normally you just look at what there is to see, and create meaning from your past experience. So, if you are not disabled, you might not see any disability connotation in straight landscapes. In this section I've injected symbols of wheelchairs throughout the chapter for you to find and think about. In some images they are very visible, in others they're not. The approach should make you really look and, by the time you get to the sixth picture in this series, you're probably hunting for a wheelchair symbol. That's going to give you a sense of my experience about what I see when I look at a landscape. I have to search it for access. My social life is defined by barriers, and by a much-diminished level of access than yours. People move within environments without thinking about it, because it's built for them. So you can see that I move within the environment with a totally different mindset, and I'm trying to evoke that in a subtle way.

The chapter My Feelings suddenly becomes abstract. What about the nature of these pictures?

When you think you're going to die, and you really might die, it has an impact on how you feel. It's about a chink of light, that I'm constantly trying to grab, about fading out and holding on to the light. These abstract images relate to this inner experience of threat and pressure. The quadratych one is about anger, resignation and aspiration; about trying to grab the colour of life. I'm sometimes angry at life, I wish I didn't have to deal with all this shit and I could enjoy life, but it still is life! And I'll grab what I'll can get.

Paralysis Un-seen is a self-published book and can be obtained at