The Power of Larger than Life Portraits

  • May Hemler’s Division III project photographed subjects with disabilities in a way that turned the "pitiful gaze that disabled people often get upside down.” She says, “I didn’t want viewers to pity my subjects at all— I want them to be taken aback by how whole and strong the people look.” She produced 10 striking portraits, shot with film and then scanned, presenting her subjects in an intimate manner.
  • In addition to the portraits, Hemler amassed a collection of what she refers to as “image and object-based disability history.” Sourced from online collections, museums, and books, the historical images are portraits of disabled people at their place of work, in their home or the studio, or with family and friends. Also included are posters, pamphlets, and postcards that Hemler say help to illustrate the often well-intentioned, but ultimately damaging role that disability advocacy has played in the past.
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My name is May Hemler, and my DIV III is a portrait series that focuses on subversive and radical disabled people. It's based a lot on my own experience with disability and chronic pain and trying to find ways to overcome pity and find power. A lot of my interaction with other disabled people happens online because so many of us are confined to our spaces, unable to even leave our homes at some point. So that's how I thought who would be best to go about finding people.

I've always had an interest in photography, but this is my first project that is solely portraiture. I wanted all the subjects to feel really powerful. So that's why I chose large format. You can create these like larger than life portraits of your subjects. This was my first time working with color film. I had to supply my own chemicals, and learn how to develop color film, and then learn how to scan film, and then edit and print digitally.

With analog photography, because it takes a long time to set up, and you get to really talk to your subjects-- and that's something that I was worried about-- people not really wanting to talk to me about their day-to-day lives, or why they wanted to be in my project or anything like that. But people usually tend to open up and be willing to share, which is really great. After this, I'm going to start trying to make this project into a book and just work on that until graduation.

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