No. 4 @ Contact Theatre Manchester Photoshoot with Photographer Benji Reid .

Friday 26th March 2024

Apart from a quick trip to get a passport picture I avoid having pictures or selfies like the plague.

I was told the technical term is Body Dysmorphia once, years ago when I went to counselling but I just call it an overwhelming awkwardness, a ‘Why are you doing that? And I hope your camera breaks first, so I won’t see myself looking rubbish.’ Whatever it is, I’m not confident and couldn’t for the life of me describe in any detail what I look like to you, so it stands to reason it would need to be some amazingly crafted counter arguments to break that spell.

As an emerging artist I needed to have some professional quality shots and it was suggested I look at Benji Reid’s work. I was instantly gripped by the strangeness and the striking combinations of humour, vulnerability and energy in the photographs. It reminded me of The Matrix meets Salvador Dahli and I kept thinking how the hell is that possible? How has someone done this? That somebody is Benji Reid, a renowned Manchester photographer, dance artist, performer and director.

His work seemed to be a good fit for the sometimes funny, surreal nature of my poems. Slowly but surely then the veneer of my reluctance to be photographed was breaking down. A final reason in the grand scheme of things was that I just didn’t have many images at all that weren’t fleeting shots of the back of my head, like Cousin It out of the Addams Family. All these things swung me towards just giving something new a try and going for it, looking past my anxiety and instead feeling excited.

What was it like as a wheelchair user using space at Contact in Manchester? In my experience its usually small simple changes that are missed in buildings that would make a world of difference this is why I was pretty impressed with the layout of the Contact theatre. On first entering with just a button on the wall to operate the automatic doors, to a standard easy lift to get upstairs and disabled toilets. It had clearly being thought about beforehand with no sign of ad-hock temporary makeshift 2nd hand access anywhere, which from my view is pleasing because you don’t feel like charity having to explain your existence.

If I were to pick a slight downside personally the disabled toilet wasn’t very big upstairs to change into meaning for the photoshoot I repeatedly knocked the hand-dryer on when moving and struggle to find space to move or put my clothes. The producer hadn’t asked about accessible changing rooms so that’s a learning curve for my team. I managed in the end but someone with less movement or a bigger chair would find that difficult to impossible.

I really liked the look and feel overall of Contact it had bright pink, youthful colours on the walls, a nice looking cafe and Space 4 had natural light and was relaxing to be in. After a quick look around to see that Space 0 has an accessible stage, which would be ok for a poetry open mic or accessible book tour, we had a coffee and chat with Benji and we began the shoot.

This was the first time I’d employed a PA to support with my practise as a poet. I chose my friend of many, many years and artist in his own right, musician James Ball to be my PA. He was there to help us get the best results and do a job but also throughout he was really fun and jovial. One big reason for asking him was because I knew he’d relax me and generally be a great laugh if at any point when I was a bit anxious or overwhelmed. I can say it definitely worked and there was loads of great energy. From a very practical point of view, my biggest worry was that I’d not be able to physically manage due to my cerebral palsy, to move and get into the positions that Benji suggested so having a friend there to help with that was also a massive boost. Although on numerous occasions it did feel like that scene in Forrest Gump when he carries a dying Bubba out of the jungle but I suppose that’s what they call suffering for the art. And he didn’t drop me so it worked out amazing in the end.

Right from the initial first Zoom chat with Benji I got a really good feeling, a click, and I definitely thought we’d end up with something cool and interesting. That energy and feeling was magnified when we actually began the shoot. Most, if not all, the trepidation I felt went away really quickly as Benji was encouraging and fun throughout. In fact I’d say that same feeling ran through all of the day- we were professional because we’d come to do a job and see results but entertaining and jovial too.

There were moments when all three of us were simultaneously surprised like when Benji asked me to raise my chair up and then with a fan and tinfoil as a prop it turned into a spaceship. That was a wow moment for me and something I’d not have thought of.

An important and recurring aspect I feel I should touch upon is my initial reaction to some of the shots and close-ups. I’ve already mentioned the Body Dysmorphia and this made it extremely difficult not to be overly critical of how I look in the images and to a certain extent feel sadness at noticing the telltale signs of my cerebral palsy. I know anyone able bodied and disabled alike can suffer from body dysmorphia for many reasons but I’d also speculate that the attitude of wider society plays a big part in mine.

I take responsibility for the things I can and move forward but so many times buildings are inaccessible, transport options limited and relationships don’t form or break down due to lack of knowledge and it makes you feel like never quite good enough and even though you never woke up and picked this, you should’ve been able bodied.

Over time I think that filters down subconsciously because society still gives those messages that you’re inferior, that we don’t know about you and we’re too busy to start looking. Overall though I have to go past that because it is what it is and slow to change so overall I just felt really glad and lucky to be have shared that experience with three great people. My body dysmorphia may always be a difficult part of me but I also feel proud of what we got. The images themselves, there are loads of them when I’m off guard and laughing, and to me, when you take the niggling issues of disability away, then this is the essence of what really matters to me. I want to get around and to live as well as I can, the disability isn't the ruling factor or the be all and end all in my life.

                                     Photo Credit Benji Reid


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