Human frailty is an unavoidable, fundamental part of life. It’s a given that at some point, something will happen to each one of us that demonstrates this. A beautiful examination of this is the Detroit-based photographer Patricia Lay-Dorsey‘s Falling into Place, a thoughtful, touching series of self-portraits of her daily life twenty years after having been diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. It was in 1988, at the age of 45, that Lay-Dorsey took her first inexplicable fall. Over the course of time, she went from being an extremely active marathon runner and a 200-mile weekend bike-tripper to not being able to walk. Regardless of her disability, it is clear that Lay-Dorsey is an exuberant woman who lives fully and richly. The quickest way to illustrate her uniqueness is to share that around Detroit she’s known as “Grandma Techno” for her love of techno music—uncharacteristic for most anyone her age. That she has chosen to share such a personal look at her own life demonstrates her big-heartedness. Lay-Dorsey was kind enough to answer some questions and share some thoughts about her project with us:
It’s interesting to read of your discomfort presenting the full reality of your daily life because, while it’s not a real surprise, I don’t feel like it comes across in your photos. After the actual difficulty making the work, how did you decide to finally show it and to whom?
“At the time I started working on this project in June 2008, I was an online participant on Road Trips, an interactive blog run by the Magnum photographer, David Alan Harvey. Just two weeks into the project, I posted a link to my first 12 self-portraits. Since the photographs were primarily of me showering and getting dressed, I called it “My Morning Toilette.” The community responded with great enthusiasm and encouraged me to move forward with this project. David wrote in a comment, “Well, my dear, this is a book and I will mentor you on it.
“Within two months I was showing ten self-portraits from David’s first edit to Mary Ellen Mark in a workshop at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. I can still see her looking through each print laid out on the table and murmuring to herself, “These are excellent, really excellent.” Mary Ellen supported my project from that moment forward. It was this kind of confidence in the project by respected photographers that helped me recognize the importance of my staying with this work until it was ready to be published in a book. The entire process went on for five and a half years, with the majority of the self-portraits taken during the first two years.
“Of course, at the start the self-portraits I chose to take were not particularly discomforting for me to see. But as time went on I dropped deeper and deeper into my life experiences. It was then that the images forced me to look at things I had not looked at before. That was when my attitudes started to shift and I began to see that this project was triggering a personal transformation in how I felt about being disabled.”
Are you continuing to photograph yourself for this project?
“I do take the occasional self-portrait, but have no intention at this time of adding to the body of work. It seems to me that the photographs I already have, especially those in the book, tell the story that needs to be told. And as I say, it is not about the photographs; it’s about the message and the opportunity for discussion.”
“When I started taking these self-portraits six years ago I saw this as simply a photography project. After all, I was a photographer and I was using my camera to express my lived experience. I was primarily concerned with the quality of my photographs and the truth they portrayed. About four years into the project I was asked what my hopes were for the book that was to be released in 2013. My answer surprised me. Instead of focusing on Falling Into Place as a photography book, my hopes went much deeper than that. I had begun to see the potential for these self-portraits to trigger significant dialogue about what it is like to live with a disability. Since I had been both non-disabled and disabled, I could see things from both points of view. And it didn’t hurt that I had a masters in social work and decades of experience in group facilitation.”
“One thing I knew for sure was that non-disabled persons were at a disadvantage in understanding both the joys and challenges of living with a disability. It was all too easy for them to make assumptions about my life, assumptions that were incorrect. For instance, they seemed to imagine that I was depressed and unhappy with my condition. They took for granted that I would want a cure so I could live a “normal” life again. They could not imagine anyone feeling content to live without being able to walk—when, in fact, all they had to do was look at the self-portraits in my book to see that I live a very full, active life, one that is more like theirs than unlike it. Sure, I would like to be able to walk, but I have come to see that life is about much more than walking. Life is about living in the present moment and appreciating everything that comes, both what you consider good and what you consider bad. Life is a mixed bag and an incredible adventure! So when I thought about my book and what I wanted it to say, it became very clear that the message I hoped to get across was that life is life, all of it together. You live it as it comes, enjoying the highs and the lows and being incredibly grateful for the ride.
“This is why my favorite part of having the published book and the completed project is that I can go on university campuses and facilitate interactive discussions on disability with students and faculty alike. I can speak to community groups of non-disabled persons and to organizations made up of persons with disabilities and let their questions and reflections take us places I could never come up with on my own. Everyplace I have gone in the months since my book, was published has brought new insights and changed attitudes, my own as well as others. We are on this ride together and that fills me with satisfaction and gratitude. Instead of seeing the book as an end in itself, it has become a tool that can be used to promote a deeper awareness of our shared and different life experiences. And that is what makes it all worthwhile.”
All photographs © Patricia Lay-Dorsey. The book, Falling into Place, published by ffotogallery, is available here. Lay-Dorsey’s work will be on exhibit from August 23 through September 20, 2014, at Swords Into Plowshares Gallery and Peace Center in Detroit, along with a series of disability-related events.