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Photo exhibit by Penngrove artist sheds light on disability community

  • Anthony Tusler seen in his living room with a photograph he took some years ago in Alaska. Robert Grant

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
October 26, 2018

Penngrove artist and longtime disability activist Anthony Tusler recently had twenty-one photographs go on display at a semi-permanent exhibit at the Marin Center for Independent Living in San Rafael. The photographs show the lives of people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives – a focus Tusler has been especially concentrating on over the past several years.

“There are very few images of people with disabilities out there in the world,” says Tusler. “Most of them are for fundraisers and tend to be smiling, happy people with disabilities which sometimes turns into inspiration porn, as we call it. Other times we look poor and miserable so it’s ‘please send in your money to help this poor unfortunate’. It seemed the more photos we have of us going about our day-to-day lives, the more interesting it was to me. We can use photography as a means to help shift people’s stereotypes and broaden people’s view of disability.”

Tusler has been taking photographs since 1958 when one of his photos won a school prize and even worked for a while as the chief photographer and photo editor for an alternative newspaper. But it wasn’t until digital photography had enough quality and resolution that regained his interest in the art, about ten years ago. Over time, being in a wheelchair himself, he focused more on taking disability-themed photographs, preferring the “street photography” artistic perspective.

“That’s one of the challenges – I want something spontaneous and that’s why I don’t ask [people’s permission to take their picture],” says Tusler. “I don’t want people posing. This is in the tradition of street photography. There is also a new term that’s been applied – ‘social engagement’. It’s a new trend in photography supplanting street photography. There is a social justice perspective in it. It’s showing generally marginalized people in a way that advances social justice issues.”

Tusler recruited a colleague and professional curator, Fran Osborne, to help decide the flow of the photos in the exhibit. She also adjusted the height of the photographs and suggested a 48-point type for the labels, rather than the traditional 12-point type to make it easier for everybody to read. 

“All of the heights [of the photos] are lower than standard, because standard is for somebody who is about 6 foot-ish,” says Tusler. “It drives me crazy because what happens for me as a wheelchair user is, when looking up at it, it’s a perfect height to capture the reflection of the lights. So what I can see is a good reflection of the light but not the work on display. [The height of the photos] is not at an ideal height for me as a wheelchair user, it’s a compromise. That’s what a lot of accessibility is about – it’s a compromise. What’s going to work for me and what’s going to work for somebody who is six foot.”

Tusler, who is 71 and has been in a wheelchair for 66 of those years has seen the disability rights movement grow from being almost non-existent, to today, where, as he says, “there are curb cuts on every corner these days.”  

“I’ve lived out the contemporary disability experience,” says Tusler. “My parents were good advocates so I was mainstreamed in elementary and all through my college schooling. Then I got involved in the disability rights movement in 1973. It was starting in Berkeley and a few other places in the country in ’68, ’69. It was really starting to pick up steam in the early ‘70’s. I’ve been able to be a part of that for the whole time - before there were any laws. Then there were the 504 sit-ins where I took photos in 1977, which led to our first civil rights legislation nationally. And then being part of the ADA. It’s been pretty exciting. We changed the world.”

The exhibit is open to the public at 710 Fourth Street, San Rafael on Fridays, from 9 to 5 p.m.