Chrisophe Jivraj takes us into the the 'inaccessible world' of people living with disabilities.
Montreal artist Chritophe Jivraj is a photographer first. “The Swimmers,” his current show at The New Gallery, marks the first time he has used video when working with his models. The video cameras were originally set up as a means to document the process of photographing his models while they swam, but when the artist saw the footage, he found it far more compelling than the still photos and thus the documentation became the artwork.
The darkened gallery features a single screen suspended in the centre of the space, with two projectors casting the blue-green tones of a swimming pool on either side of the screen. The underwater scene depicted on the first side shows a group of people, floating and kicking, vertically suspended in the water, with people in the background swimming laps, forming a horizontal line. The other side of the screen is the same scene but inverted, with the horizontal group of swimmers in the foreground. The effect of the water and repetitive movement of the swimmers doing laps has a mesmeric quality, but the true focus of this work is the aforementioned group of people, floating upright.
The models in “The Swimmers” are people Jivraj met during his time as a caregiver at Centre d’Activitief Recreatif et Educatief (CARE), a recreation centre and school in Montreal that focuses on activities for adults who are severely physically disabled, but cognitively lucid. What the viewer is seeing are three of Jivraj’s clients from the centre: Fotis, Nadia and Giota, spending time in the pool with the assistance of their caregivers. “Our days at summer camp revolved around swimming,” says Jivraj. “They loved to be in the water; it relaxed their muscles and they experienced weightlessness. They were released from the restrictions of their wheelchairs.”
Of course, this work carries potential socio-political connotations, but the artist actually created it with a purposeful naiveté. “I really wanted to make a piece that was about us doing something fun; they love being in the water and this was something that we enjoyed doing together," he says.
I was glad to be able to sit down with the artist to talk about this piece, because I have to admit that context was key to my enjoyment of this work. Watching this feels uncomfortable because of the question of whose “voice” we are hearing. Jivraj seems to be speaking for a marginalized community that he is not a member of, which feels questionable.
Documentary photography and video can offer the viewer invaluable access to generally inaccessible worlds, but this same advantage is often criticized for the potentially unethical nature of the genre. This criticism is not new for Jivraj. He has been repeatedly questioned about his motivations since beginning to work with these models during his undergraduate degree.
Jivraj carefully interviewed each of his models about their own motivations for wanting to be involved and about their understanding of what it means to be on display in an art gallery. In a new piece he is working on, some of these interviews are even included in the work and he has handed over directorial control to the individuals represented, with the models choosing the location and activity for each shoot.
After our conversation about this piece and the direction his new work is taking, I felt assured that Jivraj isn’t taking advantage of these people, but this could be difficult to glean from encountering this work on its own.
While Jivraj feels he will eventually move on from this line of investigation, the artist doesn't feel ready to leave it behind quite yet. One reason is because Jivraj is enjoying exploring ideas that he finds challenging and difficult, but the other is the models themselves. “I stopped working as a caregiver two and a half years ago and continue to volunteer and spend time with some of the clients. They are very proud and excited about the show — they are constantly asking me what we are going to do next.”