‘I was told I was stupid… I was told I didn’t work hard enough, that I was lazy… I was made to feel less… that I’d never amount to much in life…’ just a few examples of the kind of experiences participants in The Dyslexia Portrait had to endure.
The photographic exhibition by Miranda Harr explores and challenges how people with dyslexia see the world. Through a series of collaborative images and audio interviews, the exhibition – currently housed inside the Brynmoor Jones Library at Hull University until 11 November – calls for a better understanding of what dyslexia is; the myriad ways it presents itself and gives an insight into the lived experience of those people with dyslexia. Among the participant portraits there are a few famous faces, including Sam Allardyce the English football manager and antiques expert Jonty Hearnden.
At an Artist Talk artist Miranda Harr, who herself was diagnosed with dyslexia aged 39, spoke about the challenges inherent in photographing something that you can’t see. To illustrate this she invited us all to draw our minds. Try it, it is incredibly difficult. Affecting 10% of the population, dyslexia is known as a hidden disability and is the most common of the Specific Learning Difficulties. see British Dyslexia Assoc.
Many people will have seen the idea of letters moving around on a page this concept is used in the exhibition and describes just one participant’s experience of dyslexia, there are many, many others, with varying degrees and subtleties of neurological difference.
‘If you meet one person with dyslexia then… you have met one person with dyslexia.’
Miranda talks about a theme of ‘shame and embarrassment’ emerging within the portrait shots: visitors will note that some of the subjects have their hand covering part of the face, or are in some way otherwise obscured.
Through the images and audio interviews Miranda explores with the individual participant how they experience dyslexia. She asks them to try and draw the way they experience dyslexia, from these sketches, Miranda finds ways to represent the experience in a single shot. ‘The words float off like gossamer,’ says one interviewee. In order to express this Miranda manipulated a piece of thin gauze and created a photographic representation.
‘Each image is particular to the person, it is my aesthetic representation of their experience, but it had to be about them.’
There is a created image of an effect, where black text on a white background will appear to glow and lift off the page, known as haloing. Other examples are when a person can see the beginning and endings of a word, or line of text, but the middle is somehow missing. Words can be misspelled and the writer simply cannot identify the error. There are other expressions of dyslexia, including a sort of clouding effect where a mist or fog appears to form obscuring the page.
Something else I learned during the talk is that some people with dyslexia can experience difficulties with short term memory loss Miranda describes having lists for everything in her day to day life. She also explains how she uses diagrams in her professional life to explain concepts, she describes herself as a visual person, with strong creative problem solving abilities. These traits are found in may people diagnosed with dyslexia and during her research for The Dyslexia Portrait, Miranda discovered that many comedians and also singers, have dyslexia incl. Shappi Khorsandi and Marcus Brigstocke.
While raising awareness on a serious condition The Dyslexia Portrait has, at its core, an aim to celebrate the differences in dyslexia – to celebrate all neuro-diversity in society – a call to focus on the positives; to find strengths within a person; to educate society and empower those with dyslexia and the rest of the world, about all the things they can do and not what they can’t.
The Dyslexia Portrait is not just an exhibition, Miranda sees it as being a much wider project and campaign, that could raise awareness and increase the understanding of dyslexia. There is a print publication planned as a learning resource for schools and colleges, positive responses to the The Dyslexia Portrait could very well see the exhibition touring elsewhere in the country.
Miranda has coping strategies for overcoming her dyslexia called ‘ work arounds’ it becomes clear that many of the people in the room tonight, have developed similar methods. During the Q & A session it is pointed out that certain areas of education and employment have a long way to go, in supporting people with dyslexia. There was a discussion about whether is better to be open about your dyslexia, during job application and interview process, on how schools and universities tested or not for dyslexia – an independent dyslexia test can cost up to £500.00. As ever, with anything to do with funding or a lack thereof, it is the specialist services, that cater for a minority group which suffer first. A discussion over whether people with dyslexia considered themselves disabled or not, prompted a response from Square Peg’s Rachel Elm, she reiterated the definition that lies at the heart of the project. As to whether people should think of themselves as disabled, I think that is very much a personal choice.
‘You’re disabled [under the Equality Act 2010] if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.