A few weeks ago, I made an appointment with a photographer friend of mine to get some updated head shots taken. My most recent ones were almost five years old, and while I don’t look that different, I didn’t want anyone thinking they were getting cheated out of a younger product when they met me in person. For the shoot, I had planned to switch from my regular power wheelchair to my travel chair (a Whill Model Ci) because it has a much lower back rest, and I wouldn’t have to transfer to another chair for the photos. Normally I prefer to have my power chair in photos because it’s an inherent part of my brand. However, for head shots, it just looks awkward to have a head rest behind me in a shot that’s only chest-up.
While my friend was setting up for our third and final set of shots, I started looking around the huge studio, which was essentially a small warehouse filled with at least half a dozen different sets, and a bunch of gowns (for graduation pictures), props, and furniture. One piece of furniture in particular caught my eye. It was an oversized modern armchair with a high back that flared out at the corners, and was upholstered in the most beautiful shade of dusty light blue suede. I told my friend that I had fallen in love with the armchair, and they asked me if I wanted to take some photos in it after we finished my head shots. Hell. Yes.
It’s important at this point to tell you what I was wearing because it’s very relevant. Since I came to this appointment planning on being photographed from the chest up, I wore a very professional and businesslike sleeveless top in black and white colorblock. It’s from White House | Black Market and decently expensive. From the waist down, I was wearing a $12 pair of leggings from Old Navy and black and white Chuck Taylors with no socks. Technically my colors matched, but the styles…not so much.
It came time for my armchair photos, and as soon as I realized that my entire clothing ensemble would be in the frame, I decided it was time to have fun. I told my friend that the show was theirs, and they could move my body around in the chair however they saw fit. They moved my legs this way and that, brought me silly props like a floral wreath to wear on my head and a folding fan, one of those manually lettered “Class Of” signs with my name on it, and then some. It was an absolute riot. I honestly don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard, or had that much fun just having someone take pictures of me.
My friend showed me each of the photos after they took them so we could discuss which ones were turning out best, and while the head shots turned out really well, the armchair photos were some of the best I think I’ve ever had taken of me. And this is what led me into some pretty deep philosophical thoughts.
I’ve been using a power wheelchair full-time for the last five years, and either a scooter or walker or cane for five years prior to that. While I’ve never let my disability define me, it’s hard to argue that my wheelchair is part of my identity. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Hey, I’m a wheelchair user! It’s not something I’m ashamed of or embarrassed by; quite the opposite. But as I was looking at all these fun and happy and awesome photos my friend had taken of me without my power chair, it made me feel very strange. It was almost like an out-of-body experience, taking me back to the time ten years ago when I could still walk unaided. It also made me worry that people wouldn’t realize I couldn’t walk. That sounds so crazy at first, but not when you think about the fact that being a wheelchair user is an essential part of my brand. How can I be Sylvia Longmire of Spin the Globe and Spin the Sunshine State and Spinning Her Wheels if I don’t have any wheels under me to spin?
That’s when I realized that it was actually an amazing feeling to see myself without my wheels in a photo. My chair is part of my identity, but it’s not the whole of who I am. How many billions of people in the world do we wish would realize this as well? How fantastic would it be if able-bodied people could see our humanity in a simple photo missing one basic but crucial object – our wheelchairs? And maybe, sometimes the people who need to find that person beyond the chair the most is ourselves.
I’m very active on Instagram and I see tons of photos of manual wheelchair users out of their chairs, but in almost all of them, their wheelchairs are still in the photos right next to them. I’ve always been curious why they do that instead of just leaving the chair completely out of the frame. Now I think I understand. It’s actually important to me that people know I’m a wheelchair user. If people think I look pretty or funny or sexy or badass or whatever while sitting alone in a regular armchair, I want them to realize I’m still all of those things while sitting in a chair with wheels. I think it’s fair to ask, how many men who fantasize about Victoria’s Secret models and gorgeous actresses would swipe right on them on Tinder if they were photographed looking the same, but sitting in a wheelchair?
I think wheelchair users should have photos taken of themselves at least once without their chairs both for fun, and for the introspection that I think will inevitably follow. Show them to friends or post them on social media and see how people react. For some really honest feedback and conversation, ask your close friends or family members how it makes them feel to see you without your chair. You might be surprised by their reactions!
So if you have already had photos taken without your chair at all, please share what the experience was like in the comments!