'Shooting Beauty'
Open Shutter exhibits work of adaptive photographers

Ernest ”EJ” James, who describes himself as a “bad dude,” takes a photograph with his tongue./Photo by Courtney Bent

by Stew Mosberg

Two weeks ago, Alexandre Bilodeau, the Olympic gold medalist in the moguls competition, credited his older brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy, with being his greatest inspiration. When the camera focused on Frederic, his utter joy clearly implied the feeling is mutual.

On Feb. 25, an Adaptive Sports Association (ASA) fund-raiser is being held at the Open Shutter Gallery in conjunction with the 12th annual Dave Spencer Memorial Classic. The images taken by the Durango Photography Club portraying ASA volunteers and special-needs clients skiing and boarding at DMR is both inspired and inspirational. Lee Hager, office manager at ASA, said Photography Club members selected 15 images for the Open Shutter Show. Margy Dudley, owner of Open Shutter and a volunteer at ASA, will feature the photos as part of the opening night reception. The top three pictures will continue to be displayed throughout March, while the remaining will move to the Art Wall at the Durango Recreation Center.

Serendipitously, the upcoming Durango Independent Film Festival is also screening an award-winning documentary on a photographer who turned her camera from fashion to people with disabilities. “Shooting Beauty – Everyone Deserves a Shot,” details the true account of Courtney Bent, a fledgling fashion photographer whose career takes a life-changing detour as she unexpectedly finds beauty in a home for people with significant disabilities. Shot over the course of a decade, the film follows Bent as she overcomes her own prejudices and works on making photography accessible to her new friends. Her efforts snowball into an award-winning photography program called “Picture This” and render an unforgettable story.

“The film,” explained “Shooting Beauty” Director George Kachadorian, “tells the story of the creation of this exhibit, which was shot entirely by photographers living with significant or extreme disabilities.”

Not so coincidentally, the Open Shutter will also be exhibiting about 40 of these photos, which appear at the heart of the narrative.

Bent, the film’s producer and Kachadorian’s wife, initiated the program more than 12 years ago by giving inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras to the “cast members.” It wasn’t long before she realized she had to come up with ways to adapt the cameras so they could be used by her photographers, including one who had to release the shutter with only his tongue. Explaining the process, Kachadorian said Bent used, “a lot of duct tape, Velcro, some repurposed fashion photography gear and a little creativity. We even rigged a couple of wheelchairs up with chair-cams – little ‘lipstick cameras’ that can reach hard-to-get angles.”

Some people may find the photographs and film to be emotionally disturbing. But such a response could unnecessarily overlook the value of what the photographers in “Shooting Beauty” achieved. The viewpoints and angles of perspective are out of the ordinary and the subject matter is often partially obscured or out of the frame. Heads and feet might be cropped, angles are oblique, and subjects shot from below. It might appear, to an unaware observer, that the photographers were intentionally trying to create uncommon perspectives, and indeed their line of sight is different. The images clearly portray the world as these photographers experience it every day of their lives.

What became apparent to Bent soon after the project’s inception was the joy and enthusiasm exhibited by the participants. Given the chance to attempt something new and hitherto unavailable to them, photography, much like skiing for developmentally challenged people, provided a sense of accomplishment and pride that many of them would never otherwise experience. The laughter of ASA students when they make their first tracks in the snow or the absolute exuberance they display upon participating in competition, is as inspiring to them as it is to ASA volunteers. Bent and Kachadorian, and the people who have seen the documentary and photos, come away with the same sense of inspiration.

What the “Shooting Beauty” photographs all have in common is an enthusiasm for self expression. Beyond giving a glimpse into their sometime cloistered lifestyle, these photographers demonstrate an innate ability to see the world as artists. Given the chance to literally and figuratively share their personal perspectives, the results are more than intriguing; they go to the core of human dignity. As the film’s subtitle reflects, “everyone deserves a shot.” The film has been described as a masterpiece and has garnered Best Film, Best Documentary, Film of the Year, and Audience Favorite awards in more than a dozen festival presentations. The upcoming exhibit offers Durangoans a chance to be part of the inspiring stories and witness a treasure trove of award-winning art. •



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