Harper Nichols is not able to grab with one hand. In her colorful series of photos, “holding / self portrait”, she shows all the things she holds throughout the day with her arm.
Late for somewhere I don’t wanna be
I forgot my emotional support Water Bottle
Harper Nichols has always loved photography. But when the University of Alabama at Birmingham senior graduate was tasked with doing a self-portrait as part of her class, she didn’t want to.
The way she chose to do the project not only influenced her artistic practice, but also changed her relationship with others.
Nichols, of Homewood, Alabama, doesn’t like to talk about her disability or the difficulties that come with it, she says, and the idea of a self-portrait and exposing her body scared her.
“I never liked having my picture taken, especially because of how my arm looked due to my cerebral palsy,” Nichols said. “I knew I would hate how I looked if my arm was in it.”
Instead, 22-year-old Nichols, who on April 30 is graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Department of Art and Art History at the College of Arts and Sciences, says she leaned on this scary feeling. She only photographed her arm as a subject.
Because she’s not able to grab things with one hand, her arm has become its own personalized holding device, she wrote in her project statement. The series, “holding / self portrait”, shows all the things she holds throughout the day with her arm.
For the process, Nichols set up billboard backdrops and the camera, extended his arm, held it in position, and took several shots to get a good shot or two from each pose.
“It was an experience, almost, in can I do this? Am I able to photograph myself and hold all these things? Because I can’t hold things in my hand,” she said. “But it also ended up being a way of saying, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I do. “”
The way Nichols grew up – the way her parents raised her – “I was a Harper and I was a photographer, even before I was a disabled person, and I never wanted people to look at me from this way,” she said.
She has a family of artists: her father is a photographer, as is her grandfather, and her mother and two sisters are artists. Photography is something she knew she wanted to do, but her interest grew in high school. She chose UAB to stay close to her family and have a home base. The more she became involved in the Department of Art and Art History program, and the more she met and got to know the staff and students, the more she knew she wanted to graduate there, says- she.
“It felt like a good way to focus on the kind of photography I love and gave me the opportunity to have an exhibition at the very end,” Nichols said. “It helped me to know that I was able to have one-on-one conversations with professors and say, ‘This is the art I want to do; it’s the art I made. How can I take it from there and improve it? and graduate and enter the art world.
Assistant professor of photography Jillian M. Browning says she’s much more interested in having students show her who they are with their art than following specific guidelines.
“It was so fun to see how Harper can do things for my class that still feel like her art,” Browning said. “Harper has a very distinctive artistic style, so it was such an experience to watch her shape the assignments I give her in her personal art practice.”
Browning says she also pushed Nichols to address more personal issues in her work.
“Her ‘holding’ series started with a self-portrait task where she only needed two images and grew into an entire series that turned into a great classroom conversation and hopefully expanded- the, Harper’s vision of what his art could be,” Browning said.
The support and compliments she received from friends and even strangers about her work in the months following the series was heartwarming, she says. Now his work centers around a series of portraits of people that focus on color, light and form. These works can be seen in the BFA exhibition presented at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts of the UAB until April 30. This month, she’s excited to start working as an associate photographer at Good Grit magazine.
Photographing the series centered on her arm hasn’t changed the way she sees herself, she says, but it has changed the way she tells others about herself.
“Two years ago, I would never have been able to sit down and have this interview,” Nichols said. “Now it’s more like, this is what I have, and this is what I’m going through, but it’s not who I am as a person. It’s something that affects me on a daily basis but which does not define me as a human being.