Several months ago, I found myself lying on my stomach in the middle of a paved bike path in Carrboro. I was trying to get a low-angle shot of my younger brother, Tamirat (“T”), balancing in his wheelchair on top of a long board. Each time a bike headed toward me, T would yell at me to roll out of the way.
This awkward situation came about because of a similar event in Maine four or five years ago. My family was on vacation and had stopped near Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park.
It was my first vacation with my new digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and I planned to practice my photography skills by capturing the gorgeous rocky coast line. T had other plans for me when he spotted a large boulder several feet from the waterline. It just so happened that the top of the boulder was the perfect surface area to fit all four of his wheels.
After some quick coordination, my family members got T safely on top of the boulder. As he balanced on two wheels, gears began turning in my head.
What if we did a series of photos of my brother balancing in his wheelchair on top of different objects?
Initially, I was going for shock value. I wanted people’s heads to turn. I wanted them to wonder how we captured the image.
My brother and I collaborated to think of various locations and objects. He’s now been on railroad tracks, picnic tables, cars, and skateboards. As we added to the series, my goals for the project have become more nuanced.
Dubbed “On Top of,” the photo series has become a way to reflect on my relationship with my brother and a way to break the stereotype of disability.
T and I have much in common. We were both adopted from outside the United States. Growing up, I remember us talking for hours about identity and family history. It wasn’t something I liked to talk about openly because I wasn’t sure my experiences would be understood. It was always easier to talk to him about it because he was going through the same thing.
We also shared the experience of growing up with a disability. Due to using wheelchairs for mobility, my brother and I participated in very similar activities. I spent much of my childhood with him competing in wheelchair athletics. We got to know each other during extended road trips and down times between athletic practices and competitions. Our close relationship allowed us to play off each other during our photo sessions. I can often predict how my brother will react to various situations and comments. These predictions make it easier for me to convey his personality through each shot.
I hope that the photo series helps break the negative stereotypes around physical disability. Many times, people who use wheelchairs are seen as being confined and incapable. These stereotypes often have very real negative side effects, causing may people in wheelchairs to be left out of physical activity and everyday life.
I hope that my photos open people up to the endless possibilities that are available to people with physical disabilities. Broadening people’s perceptions around physical disabilities is one of the first steps toward acceptance and inclusion.
Mia Ives-Rublee has a master’s degree in social work and is a research assistant at UNC. Write to her in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org