What It's Like To Live With Physical Disability (NSFW)

Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
This story was originally published on May 11, 2015.

Often, the stories that are told about people with physical differences center on what they cannot do. Born with the rare neuromuscular disorder Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), which damages nerves in the arms and legs, Sophie Klafter is familiar with difference. "I have had to view things other people took for granted from a different perspective," she writes on her website. "Since childhood, I have had to be sharply observant of my surroundings — details such as little grooves in the pavement or uneven bricks on the sidewalk could make the difference between a pleasant outing and a catastrophic fall."

To conduct a dialogue with her environment and her own limitations, Klafter turned to self-portraiture. She then began photographing others with physical differences. "I not only wanted to create portraits of disabled people functioning out in the world; I also wanted their life stories," she explains. "I wanted to go into their homes, meet their families, hold their possessions, and hear their stories of perseverance. I wanted to truly capture their spirit and what it was like for them to go through life in an atypical body. I wanted others to experience their corporeality." Klafter's project, "corpoReality," now on display at Brooklyn's The Invisible Dog, pairs 24 dynamic portraits with descriptions of their subjects' passions, achievements, vocations — their capabilities. The photos convey that the physically disabled, like anyone else, are moving the bodies they have towards the dreams they carry. Read on for our Q&A with Klafter, and click through to see her striking portraits.

How did you connect with the different photo subjects?
"I spent a lot of time finding my subjects, but some of them I met in the most random ways. I’ve posted ads on small-town signposts and Craigslist alike. I’ve also contacted hospitals, rehabilitation centers, support groups, and adaptive sports programs to see if anyone was interested in being part of my project... I have become close friends with almost all of my subjects, and I still keep in touch with every one of them."

How did you photograph your subjects to best reflect their individuality and interests?
"The work featured in 'corpoReality' took me nearly three years to put together. The reason for this is twofold. I spent much more time looking for the right people than I did actually taking pictures. Secondly, I spend a lot of time getting to know them, before I even start taking pictures. Each person I’ve photographed has a truly unique story to tell, and my job is to help tell it — I go to their homes, meet their families, find out what their challenges have been and what they love about themselves. This is what I mean by a person’s 'corpoReality'... I think part of the beauty of this series is that [the subjects] share my excitement for what I’m trying to accomplish. Just like anybody, they were sometimes bashful for the first few moments in front of the camera...but I would never publicize an image of someone who was not comfortable with the portrait."

Were there any surprises in the creative process?
"I didn’t expect for the project to be so emotionally difficult. Each one of my subjects has faced extreme challenges in their lives, many of which made me cry... But, each of them has found a way to surpass the negativity and move forward with their lives. I can easily say that they are the most incredible and beautiful people I have ever met. To me, they are not just my subjects; they are my friends. It was extremely important to me to paint them in the most honest way possible."
1 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Chloe
"Over 10 years ago, Chloe had a spinal cord injury after an accident. She is a mixed-media artist about to begin an artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center in June."
Advertisement
2 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
"Chloe is a 2014 gold-medal paraclimbing master. With her new leg braces, she is looking forward to hiking in Vermont and rock climbing out west. She also enjoys the challenge of ice climbing."
3 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Adam
"Born with Down syndrome, Adam enjoys working at Chili’s. He loves bodybuilding and is an avid athlete."
4 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Geri
"Geri is a disability awareness advocate and speaker who was born with diastrophic dysplasia."
5 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Jeff
"Born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, Jeff is an accomplished lawyer. He also has degrees in mathematics and engineering, and is the proud father of three."
6 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Heather
"Majoring in Social Work in her junior year of college, Heather was born with Choreoathetoid Cerebral Palsy, which has rendered her unable to speak. Among her many interests are writing, floral arranging, swimming, and horseback riding. With the help of a speech-generating device, Heather is fully able to communicate."
Advertisement
7 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Ig-e & Geanne
"I-ge suffered an L3 spinal cord injury. He believes 'everything happens that has and will.'"
8 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Kathy
"Kathy has a long family history of androgenetic alopecia [hair loss]."
9 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Kahreemah
"After losing her leg to cancer, Kahreemah started rock climbing as a hobby. She now teaches adaptive climbing lessons in Brooklyn, New York."
10 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Mark & Katherine
"Mark and Katherine take ballroom dance lessons together. Mark is a paraplegic."
11 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Rhonda
"Blind since her 20s, Rhonda is a psychoanalyst practicing in Manhattan who also carries a Masters degree in music as a concert pianist."
Advertisement
12 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Lena
"Born with spina bifida, Lena is now eight years old. She calls herself a 'fashionista' because she loves to design things. She acts and sings in community theatre."
13 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Sarah
"Sarah is a painter, sculptor and harpist. Born without legs and [with] only one arm, she loves her body and believes she was put on this earth for a reason. She says she will miss her body in her next life. 'The most difficult thing about being disabled is that people around you become blind and deaf,' [Sarah says]."
14 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Steve
"Steve is a comedian who was born with muscular dystrophy. He is working on a comic web series spreading disabilities awareness...called 'Uplifting Dystrophy.'"
15 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Samantha
"Born in Venezuela, Samantha is a college student with lymphedema. She sings opera and plays the violin with exuberance and confidence."
16 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Zack
"Zack, a landscape designer, was rendered quadriplegic after diving into the deep end of a swimming pool in 2010. He loves to BBQ, garden, and hand cycle. His plans for the future are to raise a family and build a house of his own design."
Advertisement
17 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Sarah
"After news of inheriting the BRCA II gene, Sarah opted for a prophylactic double mastectomy. Her new breasts were reconstructed by transferring skin and fat from other parts of her body. She is a fearless skydiver and mother of three."
18 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Sophie, the photographer
"I have my mother’s light eyes, my great-grandmother’s round nose, and my grandfather’s gift of gab. From my father, I have inherited Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare neuromuscular disorder with which he was born."
19 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Sophie & her father
20 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Justin
"Along with his two brothers and both of his parents, Justin was born with albinism. He works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is building his career as a model."
21 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Josh
"Born profoundly deaf, this passionate student loves soccer, basketball, computer games, cooking, and reading. When he grows up, he wants to be a chef. Josh can now hear [after] his cochlear implant surgery."
Advertisement
22 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Jennifer
"A table-tennis gold medalist Paralympian in 1996 and 1998, Jennifer also placed as a silver medalist in 1972 in the sport of basketball. Born in Jamaica, she acquired polio at the age of five. Jennifer is married to a Paralympian in field events."
23 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Jim
"A Marine corps veteran and a double amputee, Jim is an active volunteer at the VA hospital, and an ardent fisherman and hunter."
24 of 24
Photo: Courtesy Of Sophie Klafter.
Helene
"Helene is a hand cyclist who races in Manhattan and is affected by multiple sclerosis. She graduated college as a physical education teacher and is currently teaching children with multiple sclerosis to swim. She has been given three keys to the city by Giuliani and Bloomberg."
Advertisement