Kath Duncan is a 40 year old physical freak dynamo who works as a free-lance journalist in radio, print and television. She’s been exploring edgy and taboo topics for some time in her work including: masturbation, disability fetishes, masculinity and housework, people who want to be disabled and a whole lot of stuff that keeps getting her into trouble. Born with just half her left arm and half her right leg, Kath gets twice as much wear out of a pair of socks. She loves reading, eating, agitating, pondering, watching birds, surf and the bush and can’t resist an opportunity to speak in public or get her name in print. A blatant self-promoter and party chick, Kath has no shame.
Embracing Life by Kath Duncan April 2004
‘Donna, you’re different, aren’t you?’ she asked.
‘I guess so,’ I said.
‘Just how different are you?’ she asked with an air of secrecy, her head
cocked on the side.
‘Put it this way,’ I replied, ‘I’m a culture looking for a place to happen.’
(Donna Williams, ‘Somebody Somewhere’)
As far back as I can remember I felt different, like I didn’t fit in here on planet Earth. I could blame this lack of belonging entirely on my congenital difference – being born with half my left arm, half my right leg and two full-length limbs – but it would be more accurate to say that it is the way I have been treated because of my differences that has made me feel ‘other’. I have been excluded, separated, over-examined and over-questioned by a dizzying number of medicos, teachers, bureaucrats, strangers, employers, lovers and friends.
Seeing that this was not the same experience my able-bodied peers have, I have looked at able-bodied culture from the perspective of feeling like an alien. I have actively created the homeland of my dreams over the last forty-plus years – a planet full of one-legged, one-armed people; my imaginary people. At the same time I am undoubtedly part of the human family, a conflict that leaves me straddling worlds; part of this place and part something entirely ‘other’. It is in fact an in-between place where the exciting thing happens – where I can begin to articulate who I am and what it’s like to be me.
In my Intimate Encounters shot, Embracing Life, I am very much exposed. Naked and with my arms open, I am allowing my physical difference, and my vulnerabilities, to be shown, as well as my less than honed, round body. I bare myself to a public I will never know, an act of trust and boldness. It is now while writing this that I am clarifying why.
For a start, I am not alone here. We have the numbers in this exhibition. We take up space and invite your gaze fearlessly. We have all seen disabled people on display at some time in our lives: the medical pictures, the deliberate framing and placing of disabled subjects to pathologise us as aberrant, which also works to assure the viewer of their ‘normality’. The Intimate Encounters exhibition is something else altogether.
The reason Intimate Encounters is an exhibition of strength and not of freakery is because the process of creating the images was a collaborative one. Belinda Mason-Lovering set out to facilitate the photographic expression of our journeys through disability and sexuality; and for everyone involved to learn from each other. What you see on the walls is what can happen when the artist decides to work with the subject as a team. Intimate Encounters is a break from the time-honoured photographic approach to disability as a way to stare at us without identifying with us.
You may find some images confronting. Some are just outright beautiful. All of them are presented with text from each of us, explaining the image, drawing on universal hopes and dreams. These words, written by each of the participants, trace our feelings about ourselves and our bodies.
To understand how revolutionary this approach is, let’s take a quick look at disabled people through history. HJ Stiker’s 1999 book, ‘A History of Disability’ is very useful for this. Basically, across many centuries, babies born like me were rejected at birth, excluded from society, tested and experimented on, and in death our body parts and skeletons fought over as collectors’ items for curious scientists. In scanning these fragments of history, I have found that the writings and thoughts of people like me have not been passed down. And at this historical moment, while sophisticated pre-natal testing methods are available to those in so-called ‘developed’ nations, this present age could be the congenital freak’s last hurrah. Intimate Encounters shatters this silence from the past and for the future; reflecting the struggles disabled people have always had: to survive, to be listened to, to have our lives regarded as valid and valuable, and to have the same rights to sexual expression as the non-disabled.
My own journey with my sexuality has been very rewarding. My happiness with my sexual self may also explain the broad smile on my face in my shot. For all I talk here about the difficulties of being me, there is something about my form, for all its strangeness, that I find compellingly lovely. I guess I have always relished the unique. My partners have predominantly been able-bodied, but perhaps they have also been unusual – bohemian, bisexual, artistically-inclined, unconventional… I started exploring sexuality at the age of 15 and essentially have had a fine time with a range of different partners over the years. I am now involved with a fabulous woman who co-parents three kids with her ex-partner, so I now have my own part-time family as well. I have found sex and sexuality to be a rich playground for my creative expression, probably because it crystallizes the major themes of my life: my body, my desires, how these desires interact with others, at the very coal-face of societal views about disability.
I do believe societal views of us are changing. I have been noticing this markedly since 1981 – the International Year of Disabled Persons. I also think international events like the Paralympics and the increased presence of disabled people in performance have played their part. However, I still find it hard not to take it personally, as well as politically, that people born like me were disposed throughout history; that their prints are not on this earth as part of our, and my personal history. I am not ashamed to admit that it can hurt to be a freak, but I would also like to stress that this lived experience is the source of my creative inspirations. I rejoice in the productive fire and passion of my difference. I am privileged to be different. I will leave prints.