Please be aware, there are images on this website that are of Aboriginal people who have since passed away.
‘Intimate Encounters’ is a beautiful and powerful photographic exhibition of 40 works representing the experiences of people with disabilities. With the assistance of Accessible Arts and Visions of Australia, “Intimate Encounters” toured to every metropolitan and key regional city throughout Australia – 32 venues from 2001 to 2007 and to nine international cities from 2002 to 2014 and was shown in London, New York, New Zealand, Barcelona, Toronto and in March 2010 in Seville , Spain. Editions of the exhibition are held by ShapeArts London, Museum of Sex New York, Tiaho Trust New Zealand and the Albury Library & Museum NSW.
In 1998, Photographer, Belinda Mason collaborated with the participants to create a unique, highly emotive essay that takes the viewer through a journey of emotions, tapping into thoughts and feelings so often dismissed and denied. All images were developed with full input and participation from the people photographed; it is been a truly collaborative experience, shaped by the participant’s own feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. Belinda Mason has worked extensively with all the participants to define how they wish to be represented. This is a radical shift in the way people with disabilities are generally photographed; rather than objectifying their experiences, they are the active creators of their representation.
The work explores the myriad of connections between disability and sexuality. It challenges the hidden (and often-at times not so hidden) myth in our society that only the most glamorous, attractive and successful among us lead active, healthy and imaginative sexual lives. It is a myth intonated through images present at every edge of our consciousness. Screened, flashed, flickered and fleshed out through film, print, press, art and Internet – eventually projected from person to person, generation to generation.
But then there is the truth. We all have our own, unique sexual journey, mapped out with secret adventure, whispered aspirations, the pain of risk and over riding urge for intimacy. It is a journey that, if fully embraced, determines and moulds our identity and self worth. The work creates new visual messages about sexuality and disability. These messages have a basis in the lived realities of individuals with a disability. People with physical, intellectual, learning, psychiatric and neurological disabilities have participated in a journey that extends from the subconscious into the community, challenging the hidden norms about what is “sexy” and who among us is allowed to feel that way. The people who have collaborated in this photographic essay are all extraordinary. Some are well known for their various achievements. There are Paralympians, people who excel in their chosen sport, professionals in the arts, community services, academia and people just like you and me. Ultimately, it’s about how we feel about our inner selves that let’s us free each other to lead larger lives.
“Intimate Encounters” provides a unique opportunity for people with disabilities to self – represent, to speak candidly though the photographic medium and through text panels about their experiences of their sexuality, representation and desires. The exhibition challenges stereotypes about disability is, how it can be shown and the experience of living with a disability. As an exhibition built around the active participation and collaboration of all the subjects, Intimate Encounters shows the diversity of the experiences of people with disabilities, and more broadly the experiences and choices of us all. The exhibition breaks down the homogenised image of disability. Each person’s experiences are unique and are respected as such. What the exhibition presents overall is the idea of choice and opportunity – it empowers disability, rather than representing it as passive.
‘Intimate Encounters’ looks at disability and sexuality – challenging the usual stereotypes of representation of disability. However, for the viewer, the experience is a much wider one: disability is shown as part of a normal continuum of life experience, an aspect of a person’s life, rather than the full definition. In this way, the exhibition presents a new representation of disability, one that is empowering and affirming. Disability has generally been culturally ‘desexualised’, the idea of people with disabilities as lovers, partners, spouses, and as people with a full range of desires has been something of a taboo in our society. ‘Intimate Encounters’ provides a different perspective, an opportunity for all audiences to recognise the diversity of the experience of disability, and to acknowledge that we all share common needs and wants. The accompanying text panels provide audiences with further insight and understanding of the unique experiences that shape us all.
Representation of disability in photography has generally followed a ‘medical model’- people with disabilities are represented as specimens, or examples; they are constructed as the ‘other’ to the cultural norm and are objectified as a disability type rather than as an individual. ‘Intimate Encounters’ breaks that model by showing a subjective view of disability, one that is shaped by the individuals themselves in a fully collaborative process between photographer and subject. Each of the images has been shaped and developed in lengthy conversations with the subject, and it is the subject’s wishes and desires that have been ‘translated’ rather than the photographer’s idea of what a disability is, or how a person should be shown.
In addition, ‘Intimate Encounters’ is groundbreaking in its frank and realistic exploration of issues of disability and sexuality. For people with disabilities, this is often an unspoken area. It is often assumed that a person with a disability has no sexual identity or desires; ‘Intimate Encounters’ debunks that myth by allowing the voices of people with disabilities to be heard, giving them a forum in which to discuss their sexuality, and by extension their personal identity, desires and fantasies. As this is an area in which little has been created, and in which the ‘disability voice’ is rarely heard, the content of ‘Intimate Encounters’ is extremely significant.