My name is Chris Purnell. I am a wheelchair user from the UK. I take photos of me, having fallen out of my wheelchair whilst doing ordinary day-to-day tasks. I call these photos, “don’t mind me.”
There are some who find my photos funny, as seeing a wheelchair user not in his wheelchair is in stark contrast to the way wheelchair users are typically portrayed in media, and the shock of seeing that provokes immediate uncomfortable laughter.
For some there is something empowering about a wheelchair user trying to take ownership of his body and his situation and commenting on it.
There are others that strongly disagree with my work. I have been told that I should not be making fun of disabled people, and that there is nothing funny about disability. I remember one woman, Jen, cried as she told me about her late, disabled uncle. She told me that I was insulting his memory with my photos and I should be ashamed. This is my favorite kind of response, and it is why I take these photos.
Jen, like most people, have a very rigid concept of disabled people and disability. It in no way makes them bad people, just products of our Western society. This concept is perpetuated by Western media, which portrays disabled people as poor and pathetic, and as people we should pity and look after, or disabled people are portrayed as brave heroes, like Paralympians or soldiers injured in war who are triumphant over adversity in an inspiring way. I am neither of those things. Neither are the majority of disabled people I know. Western media misses out the majority of us disabled people in the middle of those two polar-opposite of disabled people archetypes. This is an area that has expanded in recent years, and one I love to explore with unsuspecting viewers of my photos.
My photos show a guy from this middle group. He is adjusting to his new life as a wheelchair user. He is going about normal everyday things, like shopping, having fun in the park, posting a letter, and he is struggling. But he doesn’t want you to see him struggle. He doesn’t want you to think any less of him because he is in a wheelchair, and he doesn’t want to burden you by asking for help. His self-esteem and self-worth is so low, in large part due to his impairment, that he would rather you didn’t pay attention to him than have him monopolise your time by helping him. He would rather say “don’t mind me” than, “please help me.” I am telling my story of struggle.
I have been a wheelchair user since I was 25. For the first three or four years of being a wheelchair user, I had no self-worth or esteem. I would try and do the things I did before the wheelchair, and I would fail at them. All I wanted to be was ‘normal’ and nothing I had ever seen in media told me that it was ok to be a wheelchair user, and that you can be ‘normal,’ you can be funny, you can be an asshole and rude, and all the things you were before the wheelchair because that is who you are. It took a long time for me to be proud of my impairment, my struggle, and my new life. It took longer to see that my wheelchair didn’t change or take away anything from my character or personality, it made them better. My name is Chris Purnell, and I am a disabled person. I am also a rude, funny, asshole. It has take me years to be comfortable with who I now am.
Don’t mind me, the photos and the t-shirts are way to remind myself that it is ok to be a disabled person, and it is a message I wish someone had shared with me when I was 25. I hope it is one I can help share with others right now.
Many people have shared their life stories with me, and they are very similar to what I went through. These struggles are the same for a lot of us. Thinking back on who I was when I was 25 makes me weep. That guy was so afraid and just wanted to be accepted. It also makes me angry that I felt like that. We should be loud and proud! We are the middle, and there is nothing wrong with us.