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Photographer Christopher Voelker pushes stereotypes

A person wearing a mask, bent over while a cat balances on her back.

Christopher Voelker has been a full-time wheelchair user since the age of 16, when he developed quadriplegia after a motocross accident. Always intrigued by photography, he decided to pursue it as a professional career, despite the considerable barriers for people with disabilities in the industry. Largely self-taught, today he’s an internationally recognized fashion, art, and celebrity photographer with an impressive portfolio that includes some very well-known names, including some of our very own PUSH GIRLS.

Voelker’s photography is complex, intriguing, and fascinating but I’m particularly drawn to his disability photography. It’s very rare to see the bodies of people with disabilities depicted in photography at all, and it’s especially unusual to see them treated as serious artistic subjects, let alone presented in settings that evoke high fashion, sex appeal, athleticism and other traits people don’t commonly associate with disability. Instead of putting a tragic lens on disability, Voelker frees the disabled body from stereotypes through the camera, and the results are stunning.

For people with disabilities who may be accustomed to hating the way they turn out on film, being shot by Voelker can be eye opening. Robert David Hall (CSI), one of the few high-profile disabled actors in the industry, experienced a revelation when he worked with Voelker on a shoot and saw the resulting images, seeing what a difference a photographer could make in the preparation of portraits and promotional stills. Voelker shoots pregnant women in wheelchairs, nude disabled couples embracing, women with high-tech prosthetics in flouncy skirts, and more.

And he’s battled considerable prejudice and discrimination. As a photographer pursuing a career, he was often forced to weigh a choice between showing up in person with his portfolio and potentially losing out on a job, or sending it out on its own and missing a chance to fight discrimination and educate people. After struggling for years to build his career and establish a reputation, Voelker’s become known not just as the most successful disabled photographer working in the United States, but also as an accomplished photographer in his own right.

His images challenge the way people think about disability, and he has a particular interest in themes surrounding sexuality and disability. He confronts these taboo subjects head-on in his work, forcing viewers to explore their discomfort. He shows many facets of the disability experience at all stages of life, and his groundbreaking images have sparked critical conversations and mind-changing moments.

Voelker works with adapted cameras and other tools, and has a passion for emulsion although he also handles digital photography. A visit to his studio, like the one we’ll be seeing tonight on PUSH GIRLS, is a glimpse into a world where disability takes a back seat to artistry.

If you can’t stand up, stand out! PUSH GIRLS airs on Mondays at 10P.

Photo credit: Christopher Voelker