Label bodied

A new photo exhibit explores the sex lives of the handicapped-on their own terms.

PREGNANT PAUSE Gold-medal Paralympian Gerry Hewson poses with his wife, Louise.

PREGNANT PAUSE Gold-medal Paralympian Gerry Hewson poses with his wife, Louise. Photo: Belinda Mason-Lovering

In a photograph hanging at the Museum of Sex, a voluptuous redhead perches on a rock whose curves echo her own. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for a institution devoted to the sensual realm. But add one detail—the model has only partial limbs—and you get at the crux of “Intimate Encounters: Disability and Sexuality,” an collection of arresting images from Australian photographer Belinda Mason-Lovering. The show’s subjects live with a wide range of mental and physical impairments— some congenital, some acquired—but it’s their equally diverse sexual identities that Mason-Lovering sought to express. Canvassing her homeland for over two years, the thirtysomething lenswoman ultimately collaborated on 40 different portraits. (The MoSex exhibit features 14 images curated from the larger series.) “It began as something I just enjoyed working on,” says Mason-Lovering from her home in North Sydney. “But when I saw the positive feedback—and received such overwhelming support from the disabled community—I started to think these images might really mean something.”

What inspired “Intimate Encounters”?
I was shooting a conference where U.K. activist Dominic Davies was discussing the right of the disabled to be sexually expressive. The very topic took me by surprise—I took those rights as a given. The audience represented a variety of disabilities but they all responded with such emotion. I asked Davis afterward, “If I could encompass all that emotion and passion in a single image, what would it be?” His boyfriend overheard and responded, “Take a picture of his dick!” [Laughs] As we talked more, Dominic agreed it would be good to find a photo that really captures his experience.

Was it difficult getting people to participate?
Being photographed naked was the real hurdle. If you’re not comfortable with that, the rest is secondary, whether you’re disabled or not.

Did you envision each shoot individually or was there an overarching theme?
I asked each subject to write what they wanted to convey and we’d discuss possible settings. In some cases the subjects had a definite idea: Samantha Jenkinson, who’s a quadriplegic, and her partner, Michael, really loved that iconic kiss in From Here to Eternity, so I shot them kissing in the surf with Sam’s wheelchair in the background. With others, there was lots of back and forth, searching for the right concept. I had just spoken with Margherita Coppolino, who lives with dwarfism, about her childhood as an orphan and her struggle to change how she presents herself to the world, when I drove by an old Catholic orphanage that was under renovation. I suggested that as a setting for a nude portrait and she said, “That’s it!”

There have been some strong reactions to the show as its toured— both positive and negative. Did that surprise you?
I was actually most surprised by my children’s response. One day I was in my home studio photographing a naked man with achondroplasia-related dwarfism. My kids, who were five or six then, walked in and said hello. The next day I was shooting a completely different project with this dad and his son, who were both fully clothed. And my kids walked through again. The next day I sat them down and said, “Is there anything you want to ask about what you saw?” And they said, “Mummy, why weren’t that dad and his son naked like the other man?” They didn’t even register the disability. It completely floored me.

Has there been any criticism regarding your involvement as an able-bodied photographer making a statement about the disabled?
Each culture has its linguistic taboos around labeling disability—call someone “handicapped” in Australia and you’ll get your head punched in, while “disabled” is a big no-no in other places. But people’s sensitivity to the exhibit text, which was written by the subjects themselves, has been especially… interesting. It’s really a criticism of how each person labels him- or herself. One calls his condition by its medical terminology; another simply calls herself a dwarf. I think we should all feel comfortable using whatever language people use to describe themselves.

What do you hope people walk away from the show with?
The show is about the craving for intimacy that we all share. I want that to hit people first, for them to experience each subject’s personal story before they see the disability. It’s been huge to have people who aren’t disabled come be touched by some common thread—to hear them say, “My God, that’s me.”

“Intimate Encounters” is on display at the Museum of Sex through Sept 16.