“These are photos of my friend Jes,” says photographer Holly Norris about her series American Able, which is part of CONTACT 2010’s Contacting Toronto exhibit, and is being shown on TTC Onestop screens in fifty subway stations. “She has a disability. She is really hot. What’s shocking?”
Norris’s attitude reflects the ethos of American Able, a project that catches your eye and then asks why you’re staring. The series depicts twenty-five-year-old model Jes Sachse, who has the genetic disorder Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, re-enacting a range of American Apparel advertisements notorious for featuring barely clothed hipster nymphets.
“American Apparel claims to use employees, friends, and fans of the company—not professional models-—and they claim they don’t airbrush, which positions their models as ‘regular women,’” says Norris. “However, their models all fit into a specific idea of what a ‘regular woman’ is, so I wanted to address that.”
AA ads do conform to the standard advertising norms, almost exclusively featuring women who are young, thin, and semi-naked. Yet Norris and Sachse (who has her own show in CONTACT, The Justice League of Gawkamerica), saw a more elusive absence. For a company that advocates the representation of real women, no AA models have visible physical disabilities.
Part of the goal of American Able, Norris says in the introduction to the series on her website, is to address how women with disabilities are frequently represented in an asexual way. “We’re talking about how people with disabilities are unseen,” Norris says about the project. “Media exists throughout public and private space and is creating notions of who sexy people are and whom we should find attractive, yet there are many, many people who go unrepresented in the media.”
While some critics of AA ads have argued that they disenfranchise women though sexual objectification, the twist of American Able is the empowerment Norris displays in the portraits of Sachse. “Jes said she enjoys self-rep work because, while she can’t control people’s gazes when she goes to the grocery store to buy milk, she can control and manipulate the gaze when she creates the image,” Norris says.
The photographs will appear on TTC Onestop screens on subway platforms this Saturday, May 20, and on Monday, May 31. They’re likely to garner some stares, but that, says Norris, is all part of the plan. “This has the potential to make people do a double take and question how this differs from a regular ad, as [the photos] will be mixed in with advertising and media,” says Norris. “I hope the realization that it’s a spoof makes people question and critique why they only ever see able-bodied people in fashion advertising.”
The issues of advertising and body image reflected in American Able are coupled with the lighthearted fun of dress-up. In each portrait, Sachse evokes the titillating sexuality that made AA such a successful company, showing us that she’s just another girl rocking a deep-V. Says Norris: “At the end of the day, American Able is just sexy and fun.”
Ad images courtesy of Holly Norris.