Harper Nichols can’t reach with one hand. In her colorful photo series “Holding / Self Portrait” she shows all the things she holds in her arm all day.
Too late to a place I don’t want to be
I forgot my emotional support water bottle
Harper Nichols has always loved photography. But when the University of Alabama-Birmingham Senior graduate was commissioned to take a selfie as part of her college research, she didn’t want to do it.
How she chose to implement the project not only influenced her artistic practice, but also changed her relationship with other people.
Nichols, of Homewood, Alabama, doesn’t like to talk about her disability or the hardships it brings, she says, and the idea of a self-portrait and the display of her body frightened her.
“I never liked how my picture was taken, especially the way my arm looks due to my cerebral palsy,” Nichols said. “I knew I would hate the way I looked with my arm in it.”
Instead, Nichols, 22, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Art and Art History on April 30, says she leaned into that scary feeling. She only photographed her arm as a subject.
Unable to grasp things with one hand, her arm has become her own personalized holding device, she wrote in her project statement. The “holding / self portrait” series shows all the things she holds in her arm throughout the day.
For the process, Nichols set up billboard backgrounds and the camera, stretched her arm, held it in place, and rotated many times to get a good shot or two of each pose.
“It was almost an experiment, can I do that? Am I able to photograph myself and hold all these things? Because I can’t hold objects in my hands,” she said. “But it also ended up saying, ‘This is me, and this is what I do.'”
The way Nichols grew up — the way her parents raised her — “I was Harper and I was a photographer before I was a disabled person and I never wanted people to look at me like that “, she said.
She comes from an artistic family: her father is a photographer, as is her grandfather, and her mother and both 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 program at the Department of Art and Art History and the more she got to know the staff and students, the more she knew she wanted to graduate there, she says.
“It seemed like a good way to introduce myself to the type of photography I like and gave me an opportunity to have an exhibition at the very end,” said Nichols. “It helped me knowing I could have one-on-one conversations with professors and say, ‘This is the art I want to do; this is the art i made. How can I go from there and do better?’ and actually graduate and go into the art world.”
Jillian M. Browning, assistant professor of photography, says she’s much more interested in students showing her who they are with their art than in following precise guidelines.
“It was so much fun to see Harper making things for my class that still look like her art,” Browning said. “Harper has a very distinctive art style, so it was a great experience to see how she incorporates the commissions I give her into 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 job that only required two images and grew into an entire series that developed into a great classroom conversation and hopefully Harper’s take on what her art could be.” expanded,” said Browning.
The support and compliments she’s received from friends and even strangers for her work in the months since the series was produced have been nice, she says. Now her work focuses on a series of portraits of people, focusing on colour, light and shapes. These works can be seen in the BFA exhibition at UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for Fine Arts until April 30th.
Photographing the series with a focus on her arm hasn’t changed her view of herself, she says, but it has changed the way she talks about herself to other people.
“Two years ago, there’s no way in a million years I could have sat down and done this interview,” Nichols said. “Now it’s more like, that’s what I have and that’s what I’m going through, but that’s not who I am as a person. It’s something that affects me on a daily basis, but doesn’t define me as a person.”