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What if you suddenly couldn’t smile? Or frown? Facial ‘masking’ is one of the common symptoms of Parkinson’s and – as photographer Chris Crossley shows in his stunning ‘Concrete’ images – losing this essential form of human communication is no laughing matter
Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1997, Australian Chris Crossley has longed for a creative outlet to express himself – where the disease might otherwise not allow him. He returned to his childhood passion of photography, and after perfecting his art, created these powerful images that capture the emotions of Parkinson’s. We spoke to Chris about his love affair with the camera, the difficulty of expressing emotion with Parkinson’s and how his creativity helps him cope with the condition.
How did you get into photography?
I have always had a love for imagery. When I was about 12 years old, I bought a Polaroid, and our on-and-off love affair began. I bought my first serious camera as an apprentice graphic reproductionist (in the print industry). It was there that I learnt about colour, black and white, and analogue 4-colour combining. In other words, I was Photoshop before it existed!
How long have you been doing it for?
I have been seriously devoting my time photography since 2010. Before then I was what I classed as a ‘point, press and pray’ photographer. Before that I played all sorts of sports, I swam, I loved drawing and clay work.
How did Parkinson’s affect your work?
Parkinson’s doesn’t impact on my ability to take photos, but it did affect my job as a graphic reproductionist. As Parkinson’s began to affect my fine motor skills, it made me too slow to complete my given tasks. I could still do them, but not at the speed required, especially when ‘time is money’. We still have value – as hopefully these photographs prove.
Does it hinder your creativity?
It makes all the other things that I did, apart from photography, a chore and no longer a means of relaxation. I love drawing but it is so slow and I need to concentrate so hard that the sheer joy of flowing strokes becomes a battle.
How has it affected you outlook on life?
I won’t lie, there are many down times but I have a choice – do nothing and achieve nothing, or battle on; I chose the battle.
Explain the concept behind your ‘Concrete’ project. Why did you decide to do it?
Since I picked up the camera again, I would occasionally ask my subject if they wouldn’t mind placing their face in water and looking at the camera. I just liked the effect. Then early last year it dawned on me, “I was making people cry because I wouldn’t, couldn’t, real men don’t cry!” So then I thought why not do something with the images to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease. I call it ‘Concrete’ after a little poem that I wrote.
The photos are incredibly stark representations – how did you get the reactions out of your subjects for each emotion?
Rather than make it about myself and just control or stage the emotion that was produced, I told each model to choose their emotion beforehand without telling me. I then directed them to place their faces with their eyes open into water and look up portraying that emotion. The emotion would then be real, not staged. The models only told me which emotion they were trying to convey after the photo shoot. No more than eight shots were taken during the shoot because I could actually see the change from no control to full control show on their faces.
How did you get the idea to capture Parkinson’s in this way?
Parkinson’s makes us stare and show less emotion on our faces than we would normally. None of the subjects had Parkinson’s. The aim was to give the ‘normal’ person I was photographing the small feeling of what the loss of control was like, even for a couple of seconds, and for me to capture it.
What is the effect gained by using the water technique?
The water acts as a distraction. Try opening your eyes with a face full of water and express an emotion like happiness, for example – it is very hard. Without the distraction of the water they would have greater control of their faces and I wanted to take that away. With Parkinson’s we sometimes show what we are feeling and at other times we give our faces no clues at all.
What did your subjects think after seeing the photos of themselves?
They were amazed at what they looked like. The most common answer was that they never thought trying to express a specific emotion with a face full of water would be so hard.
Would you say the photography has been a way of coping with Parkinson’s?
Yes, totally, all other artistic avenues that I found joy in are a struggle now. Light and dark are my colours and the camera is my brush. I still can create.
What have you got planned for the future?
With the help of my friends, 11 of the 44 images that were taken have been printed and framed. They will be shown during the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in Australia from 22 August until 20 September.
What is the treatment and care of Parkinson’s like in Australia?
I can only answer from my experience, treatment is hit and miss, you get drugs thrown at you to try. If they work, you stay on them, and then next meeting you may get another drug thrown at you. Don’t get me wrong the doctors are great, but I think that there is still too little known to automatically get it right.
How important is it to have an international community for Parkinson’s?
It’s very important that the right information is circulated. With a community dedicated to Parkinson’s, a lot of hearsay is weeded out and help is given by those with experience and expertise, rather than guesswork.
Do you or a loved one experience facial masking? Tell us about the time it affected you and leave us your thoughts in the comments below
A collection of Chris’ images will be on display at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Australia, from 22 August – 20 September 2016
You can get in touch with Chris via email
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