Ian Farrant on ‘Paralympians’
MU: The Paralympians series was part of your work for the MA course at The Cass. When did the photography take place - was the intention to look at the London 2012 Olympics?
IF: In early 2011 and yes, that was completely the plan. I knew they were happening, I knew that as a former wheelchair rugby player I had connections I could follow up and access to the athletes, and of course I was studying in the East End so it made sense.
MU: What drew you to the project?
IF: I played wheelchair rugby, so I had an interest in how athletes are photographed. As far as I could see no disabled photographer had taken images of our Paralympians, which seemed strange. The images out there were sports action shots or pedestrian-looking, run-of-the-mill press shots, passport photographs even. I wanted to look at the Paralympians in a different way.
I was interested in how, as a disabled person, with a wheelchair level view, I would take these images in terms both of how the photographs would look from that level and in terms of the rapport I might have with the subjects as a fellow disabled athlete, and how that might come through in the work. The subjects were really responsive and supportive, taking time out for me, connecting well. Shots of Parlaympians had often been taken by standing photographers – I was ‘on a level’ in more ways than one.
MU: You shot on location but there seems to be a very deliberate controlled environment.
IF: It was always a studio set up, on location – the athletes were in their familiar space but it was equally very staged. I wanted them to be in a ‘set’ and not distracted by anyone or anything else. From my perspective I wanted the control of the shot, and for the viewer to look at the person or the action - again without any distraction.
MU: How did these differ from previous images of Paralympians?
I think that the portraits are very warm, that as well as the physical connection there was a psychological one, and because I’d been a player there was that connection too. I also think that there is a group of severely disabled people who were and remain invisible despite all the ‘coverage’ of the Paralympians during the games. They travel the world, representing their country, they are European and world champions – but invisible ones.
MU: There seem to be two types of shot, you could say ’nouns’ and ‘verbs’, portraits of people and shots of people in action. And within that there may even be a third – some of the portraits could be described as epic/ heroic.
IF: I knew I wasn’t going to get another chance like this. So I planned to take different types of image within the time constraints. The portraits were designed to make a connection with the person. They are looking into the lens, so the viewer’s gaze is directed to look at the person in the shot. In the other photographs I intended to capture the feeling of strenuous effort or the physicality of the sports. In the fencing series with the seated man shot from the back, the intention was to show him bowing his head, wilting after furious exertion, to say, “this is a man who’s put everything into it”.
MU: Was there a conscious political or social agenda?
IF: I didn’t start out with something ‘political’ to say as such but there was that idea of invisibility and of seeing a certain group from a specific vantage.
MU: Some of the images anticipate the ‘superhuman’ theme that emerged in Paralympics coverage – what did you think about the representation of Paralympians/Paralympic sports in the games?
IF: I liked the advert Channel Four ran. During that campaign all eyes were on the disabled. But to me, well, it got chucked on Channel Four, not the BBC, marginalised to a certain extent. And any mainstream coverage it got was limited – it always focused on obvious cover stars.
MU: I sensed some similarities between your ‘veteran’ and ‘Paralympian’ projects – the notion of representation of the individual versus ‘hero’.
IF: This was about seeing the people beyond the disability and beyond context – much like seeing the individual pensioners beyond the red uniforms. I didn’t want to get the ’sympathy vote’ from the audience but rather for them to look and respond to the images.
MU How important is the East End archive project?
IF It’s very important. This is a rich and changing part of London. Over the years Jews, Bangladeshi, French have come here and well it’s got a sense of being a starting place for everyone. These images in the archive are a record of different aspects of that journey.
Edited from a conversation with Michael Upton.