Two years ago, I was drinking a coffee before heading off to the gym for my thrice weekly monotonous execution of my prescribed physio regime for my pre-ankle fusion injured leg. I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, when a tweet caught my eye:
Without giving myself time to talk myself out of it, I emailed them with a photo:
To my surprise, I received a response the same day, inviting me to a photo shoot in London the following weekend. They explained that they would be shooting more people than they could feature, but if I didn’t make the cut, then I would get a copy of the photo to keep.
Now I live four hours away from London and at this point was only able to walk a short distance on crutches, so this was not going to be an easy undertaking. Since the accident I had become very dependent on my husband and family to get me out and about. I was very nervous of being on my own in our small market town, let alone a big city like London. There were major logistical issues also. In July 2015, I was unable to drive a car, use escalators, walk for any distance or balance well. This ruled out most modes of transport.
I worked out that if I got a lift to the nearest train station, an hour away, I could get a train to Paddington, where I could then take another taxi to my sister’s house in Hammersmith. From there, my brother-in-law would drive me to the studio space in Herne Hill where the photo shoot was to take place. I did question whether this was really worth the effort and in my heart I had fluttering anxiety about the whole endeavour, but I asked myself: when again would I get the chance to be interviewed for a magazine? As an inconsequential person, living an inconsequential life, the answer would be pretty much, never again.
So, a couple of days after that impetuous email was sent, I set off for London. The first hurdle came at Paddington station. I had been to Paddington numerous times in the past, I had even lived in London for a while in my twenties, but I had never seen London from a disabled person’s point of view before. Disembarking the train with difficulty due to the high step, I was immediately engulfed into the wave of passengers streaming up towards the station concourse. Seemingly blind to my crutches, they buffeted me mercilessly, leading me to seek refuge against a pillar until the tide had lessened.
The walk to the taxi rank seemed endless, it was necessary to skirt the entire station, before exiting at the taxi rank. I had underestimated how far I would have to walk and my leg, hip and back were throbbing with pain by the time I collapsed gratefully into the back of a black cab and was delivered safely to my sister’s front door.
My sister insisted on coming to Herne Hill with me and my brother-in-law, reasoning that if actually this whole thing was a ruse to get some niche, fetish scar shots, then she would be on hand to rescue me. The plan was that they would hang out in the park with my nephew whilst I was being photographed and if I sent out a distress call due to weird goings-on, then they would send my sister in to sort things out.
Of course, this was completely unnecessary as everyone involved on the day was delightfully welcoming and respectful. Rosanna, with whom I had been emailing, showed me into this beautiful, eclectic house which was part artist studio, part creative magazine HQ. A stunning conservatory filled with trailing vines and large mirrors was to be the photographic studio. I was shown a rail of white shirts and asked to pick one that I would be comfortable wearing. I tried on about four, but none were quite right until Rosanna rummaged in another pile of clothes and found an off-white linen shirt with a floral collar which she made me try on. It fitted perfectly.
Clothes found, I sat in the conservatory to have my face done. I am not really a makeup wearer, so I was rather concerned with the vast array of tubes, powders and brushes that the make-up artist had before her. We chatted whilst she started work and inevitably the topic of my accident came up. Her response was startling. She was also an accident survivor, she told me. Whilst jogging one evening, less than a year ago, a motorcyclist had mown her down and she sustained serious head injuries (she showed me her impressive scar). Whilst she had recovered enough to resume work, the brain injury had entirely robbed her of her sense of smell and she did not know if it would ever return. She also confessed that she no longer felt safe running, something that she had previously loved to do.
So engrossed were we talking about our shared experiences, that we overran our allotted time. Without seeing my finished face or being primped by the waiting hair stylist, I went straight into the shoot. It was only when I was stood in front of the photographer, Liz, that I remembered that I hate having my photograph taken. This fatal flaw in my plan had completely passed me by. I felt self-conscious and awkward and whilst Liz tried to put me at my ease, I harangued myself in my head: “You are unphotogenic, unprofessional and completely unsuited to being featured in a gorgeous magazine”, I told myself, “You will never make the final cut”. I followed her instructions as best I could; I smiled, looked to my left, looked to my right, looked thoughtful, looked serious. We were down to the final few frames, when she suggested I put my hands on my heart and close my eyes and with that we were done.
I changed back into my clothes and retrieved my crutches to sit in the tiny patio garden with Rosanna who took notes for the accompanying interview. My sister arrived to collect me and it was only when I saw her startled look did I remember that I was currently wearing more makeup in one go than I had worn my entire life (and I was alive in the eighties). It was not until I got back in the car that I could check in a mirror and confirm my suspicions – yes, I closely resembled a drag queen, albeit one with a great make-up artist.
It was not until six weeks later, that I received an email from Rosanna – I had made the magazine! They sent me a copy in the post and opening it was nerve wracking. Would I look ridiculous or worse still, would I sound like a fool? Once you have told your story to someone else, you relinquish control of it. I was not in control of the picture, I was not in control of the words, so how would my story be told?
I flicked through the pages of the magazine until I found it. I studied the photo and realised that if I had not known otherwise, then I would not have recognised myself. The photo that they had chosen was the eyes closed, hands on heart pose that we had done at the end of the shoot. I understand from an editorial perspective why that photo was selected, it fits well with the narrative of recovery, but to me it didn’t tell the story that I wanted to tell for myself. I looked passive, introspective and to my eyes, I looked like a victim. It gave me pause for thought that, perhaps, that was the impression that I gave others. Perhaps I was subconsciously telling the wrong story.
I am very glad that I sent that email that morning and I am proud of my copy of the magazine. It reminds me how far I have come both physically and emotionally since that day. I wonder what the same shoot would turn out like today – hopefully outward looking, optimistic and strong.
Thanks to Rosanna and Liz at Oh Comely Magazine who were loveliness personified.
Also, thank you to the lovely make-up artist who turned me into somebody worth photographing – I hope you are running fearlessly and smelling the roses again.