“I was nervous… about seeing my own back... something that nobody sees... out in the open. I thought my back was going to be… what’s the word... grotesque? After I saw it, I thought, that’s not bad. It is my body and that’s it.”
By Louise Kinross
Photographer Steve Kean remembers sitting, as a child, on a stretcher, “nearly nude, and being talked about as if I wasn’t there by this doctor and that doctor. There was an ampitheatre with tiered seating and [medical students] watched. I was looked at as spina bifida, not as a person.”
That early indignity fuelled Steve’s desire to shoot portraits where he’d give adults with spina bifida “a choice about how they wished to be looked at and what they wanted to show.”
The result is Front to Back, a series at Strange Beauty, this year’s Tangled Art & Disability Festival at 401 Richmond St. W. in Toronto. “The idea is that these are whole people,” Steve says. “They have a whole story to tell, just like a book, which you read from front to back.”
The back has particular meaning for people with spina bifida, because it’s the spot where surgery is often needed to push part of the spinal cord, which doesn’t grow properly in utero, back inside and close the opening. Due to nerve damage, many people with spina bifida use wheelchairs.
In addition to a traditional portrait, each subject in Steve’s exhibit has a second image of their exposed back, which in some cases includes surgical scars. “It was an opportunity for them to show off their back and for me to light and photograph it as beautiful,” Steve says. “It’s stark and out there. These people were brave. Front to Back is a path to a sense of dignity and control over what happens to us. Audiences will see people first.”
The exhibit includes moving comments from each subject on why they participated.
“This is the scariest thing I could ever do. I had to do it for myself. It was time to expose something that all my life I had found ugly, embarrassing, humiliating. That’s the gift we’ve been given with this project—the opportunity to completely expose something that all our lives we have been hiding.”
Make sure to visit both Gallery 44 and Abbozzo Gallery in 401 Richmond St. W. Steve will be giving a talk on the exhibit on April 25 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. The building is full of Strange Beauty exhibits and is well worth the visit.