There are around 1.5 million people in the UK with a learning disability and 700,000 with autism. Photographer Polly Braden has spent the past two years working with some of those supported by the charity MacIntyre. The subject is complex but the aim is simple: to highlight everyday interactions and life-changing experiences.
Mikey needs this kind of support: he needs to be around people who know and understand him, who are willing to go a step further and discover the bright and amazing person he is.
—Raul, Higher Level Teaching Assistant
Polly Braden's photographs capture everyday moments, achievements and milestones. They show the barriers faced in simply trying to have fair opportunities in life, but they are also inspiring. They are filled with moments that would have once seemed difficult—from finding employment and using public transport to gaining a measure of independence, graduating from high school and getting married.
An interview with Polly Braden
David Campany: Polly, how did this project begin?
Polly Braden: The learning disability charity MacIntyre approached me with the idea of making a long-term photographic study about caring for people with learning disabilities and autism. MacIntyre helps over 1000 people across the UK. In 2016 it is their 50th anniversary and so they wanted to work on a project to celebrate that, to look at how social care in the England has changed over the past 50 years and to present the challenges we face now.
DC: 50 years. That’s also about how long autism has been accepted as a medical condition.
PB: Yes and now there are over 700,000 people in the UK with autism. It was a very open brief. I was free to approach it how I wished. It is a complex subject for photography and I wasn't sure if I would be able to contribute anything to the understanding of the issues. So in January 2014 I began with a pilot project.
I visited McIntyre Abingdon Partnership College. Students do various subjects in the college and learn life skills such as taking public transport, cooking, and shopping at the supermarket with a support worker.
As I drove up to the building, a boy, called Mikey, was lying on the grass in a t-shirt in the freezing rain, while two young men tried to persuade him to put his coat on, or come inside. They were so patient. They just stayed with Mikey, gently coaxing him.
A few hours later, just before I left, he came in. His hands were cold and red but he had his coat on and was smiling about something with the two men. I was nervous to take on this project. I hadn't spent a lot of time with people with learning disabilities and autism. I wasn't sure how I would approach the photography. By the end of the pilot I thought I could make it work. But it’s taken a while. Nearly two years, almost full time.
DC: I know your past work, and I can see there are similarities. Much of your photography has been about intimate communication between people, or gestures that you catch between two or three individuals that hint at something without explaining it. This is a book about social care and support in situations that are sometimes difficult psychologically, practically, financially. Does this put extra pressure on your images?
PB: My background is in long-term documentary projects. When I am looking through the lens I’m always watching people’s reactions to each other—the gestures, glances, positions, the moments between. I wanted to photograph everyday situations. Playing games, cooking, laying the table. Photographically this can be difficult.
When someone is making tea, for example, they generally face away from the camera. You need interesting things to photograph to make interesting images. I had to find ways to observe and show what’s going on, ways that would present interactions to the camera without manipulating them.
So I found out about MacIntyre’s social events, get-togethers, people’s work timetables, and all the different aspects of the charity’s work. I planned shoots right across the country, at the schools run by MacIntyre, homes, day care centres, cafes and shops run by individuals with support, sports centres, Christmas parties and even a wedding.
DC: We can’t immediately tell from your images who is the support worker and who is being supported.
PB: I tried to avoid signalling this. Whoever comes to the book has to decipher things for themselves, which is not unlike the interactions that I am trying to depict—interactions between people that don’t always flow freely or easily. The challenges of misunderstanding are there for the viewer/reader too.
DC: In nearly everyone’s extended family there is someone, somewhere, with a learning disability or autism and yet we seem to live in a media culture—everything from movies, to fashion, advertising and television—where it rarely comes up. This itself can be a source of stigmatization, making the conditions appear to be less common and more specialised than they really are.
PB: Yes, as I mentioned, in the UK there are over 700,000 people with autism and this number seems to be increasing. There are 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK. Only 20% of people with a diagnosed learning disability have a job and only 15% of adults with autism are in paid work.
Despite this, 65% of people with learning disabilities say they would like to be in work. So there is a long way to go. In the book I photographed a man named Alan leading a workshop. He had been out of work until he turned 40 years old. Then, with a small amount of help, he learned to use the bus independently, to get to and from meetings.
Today he plans and presents at workshops, and recently he got married. MacIntyre Catering has six people with learning disabilities helping to prepare lunches for up to 500 people a day. Many of the people I met aspire to work and live full lives. This is achievable with the right support.