For most photographers and visual artists, the ultimate goal is exposure — the chance to get their work seen. In recent years, there have been a myriad of new tools and platforms to gain publicity, beyond more traditional formats such as gallery shows and Blurb photo books. However, publishing work on a tabloid-format newspaper is rare — making it available for free even more so.
This is the intrepid path that Beate Sass, a Decatur-based photographer, chose to show her photo essays on developmental disabilities.
Sass is not a stranger to this issue. Her daughter Christine, 24, aged out of high school a couple years ago and is transitioning into independence. Following an advocacy training class, Sass decided to use her photography and storytelling skills to be the voice of people living with a disability. She recently published her project, Real Stories, Real People, by way of a 28-page newspaper that features a series of intimate portraits of individuals whose quality of life often depends on the support they get from family and friends, but also the Medicaid waiver. Sass’ goal is ultimately to educate the general public and the policymakers through her work.
ArtsATL: As a photographer, you document the history and culture where you lived. This work is different from your other bodies of work, though, since it’s a call for activism. Can you talk about what made you use photography to advocate for a cause?
Beate Sass: The subject matter is different from what I have done, but I have always been drawn to photographing people. For me it is not just a matter of snapping a photograph, it is a matter of engaging and learning something about that person.
People don’t know much about development disability and they don’t really understand the needs of individuals living with DD. I thought that it would be a wonderful way to advocate for them by combining my passion for photography with my personal interest and life experiences.
ArtsATL: What was your approach in photographing people living with DD?
Sass: I knew when I started the project that I wanted to create beautiful photographs. Somebody once asked me, “Why do they have to be beautiful?” I really wanted to show these people in a very positive light. Historically, people with DD have not been photographed in a respectful way. I did not want the public to feel pity for them. I wanted people to understand the joy and challenges they face.
ArtsATL: It is quite unusual for photographers to produce tabloid-format publications. Can you talk about your motivation and the process that informed it?
Sass: My idea with the tabloid format is that I wanted to have something very inexpensive that people didn’t have to purchase. I wanted people to be able to pick up this newspaper and say, “Oh, I have a friend, let me give it to my friend, or leave it at a coffee shop.” The whole idea was really to get the story out and educate the public and the legislators about DD. I am hoping with education, people will be more sensitive to these issues.
ArtsATL: Earlier this month, you delivered 300 copies to the state legislators. Did you just go to the Capitol and leave a pile of the newspapers there?
Sass: No, I know legislators are very busy, and there was a good chance that if I would drop them off at their office, staff members would put them on the desk on a pile of mail and it would never get seen. Last fall, I invited my senator [Sen. Elena Parent] to come to my house for a parent forum to talk about DD, and to educate her as to the importance of increasing the funding for the Medicaid waiver. She told me that the best shot I would have to get the publication being seen was to put it on each legislator’s desk. And so she sponsored me. She attached her personal business card to each publication and introduced it to the senators. I also emailed my state representative [Rep. Howard Mosby] and, in an hour, I got an email back saying he would be happy to place the newspaper on the desks in the House of Representatives for me.
ArtsATL: Have you heard back from anybody?
Sass: No, I have not heard back since then, but I am going to follow through. I am hoping to go down once a week until the session is over to talk to the legislators and ask them if they read it.
The newspaper is available at Showcase Inc. Photo & Video, Tula Art Center and the DeKalb County public libraries in Decatur, Chamblee, Dunwoody, Stonecrest and Wesley Chapel-William C. Brown.