A FAMILIAR face at gigs and events across Teesside and beyond, Kev Howard’s social documentary and observational photography has reached global audiences for more than a decade. He’s photographed hundreds of bands, poets, artists and demonstrations in that time – with a photo of Benjamin Zephaniah appearing in The Independent, and his photo of Saltburn-based writer Carmen Marcus gracing the cover of her critically acclaimed debut novel How Saints Die earlier this summer.

Also a much-loved musician, he’s travelled the world as a didgeridoo player, appearing in an Australian Rock Opera plus festivals in Holland, Germany, Belgium and America.

It’s a string of achievements made even more remarkable given the fact that Kev lives with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC) – a term used to describe over 300 conditions that cause multiple curved joints in areas of the body at birth.

Loading article content

In Kev’s case, it’s meant a series of major operations throughout his lifetime, undergoing his first surgery at just six months old. Fifty-five major operations followed over the next 24 years, including full amputations, bone grafts and shortened limbs. With each new operation shifting his centre of balance, it’s meant that Kev has had to relearn to walk numerous times.

An incredibly hard-hitting yet sensitive photographic record of the physical and emotional challenges and the constant surgical procedures he’s faced over the years, his latest startling autobiographical exhibition, the ground-breaking d-FORMED, is his most personal work to date.

A showing earlier this year helped attract almost 30,000 people to Middlesbrough’s Dorman Museum, and the response was so good that the Saltburn-based photographer's exhibition is set to end the year at Teesside University’s Constantine Gallery, in Middlesbrough. And in an exciting nod to the university setting, visitors and members of the public are being invited to join a focus group to help aid PhD student Louise Logan’s research into the perceptions and understanding of disability.

We spoke to Kev about his upcoming exhibition, and found out why Barack Obama and Prince Harry are welcome to come along too…

What inspired you to put this exhibition together?

“A whole range of things really, everything from growing up in a generation where, in my opinion, disability rights are often just given lip service. So I decided to chart my own history, found that my body has its own story to tell, and the exhibition is based around that.

“The reaction to the exhibition earlier this year was incredibly positive and, amidst all the uplifting feedback, it’s inspired Louise Logan to work with me on this Teesside University display. Louise is a PhD student whose work explores the varying different perceptions of disability and she is inviting members of the public to join a focus group to help aid her research. In doing so, she’s helped transform the exhibition into a project that may, somewhere along the line, help make a difference to the way that millions of disabled people are treated in future generations. She has already established focus groups with some students, but is keen to attract people from the wider community to get as broad a mix of opinions and perceptions as possible, so, not only can people enjoy and hopefully be inspired by the exhibition, they can also potentially contribute to some important research while they’re here.”

THE MASK

“This was the last thing I always saw before being anaesthetised for surgery. It instilled great fear and panic, which intensified up to the age of eight. The anaesthetic gas smelled ferrous and toxic. I knew the next stage was like the sound of a billion bees buzzing inside my head, and then a kaleidoscope of colours which came from nowhere. Then I remember a deep blackness, which fell into a pinpoint of circular light. At the age of eight my mindset changed and the fear was replaced by a sense of ‘adventure,’ a coping mechanism that stayed with me right the way through to the very last surgery.”

SCARIFICATION IN ABSTRACT

“This image highlights the scarification of multiple surgeries in the same area. This part of the foot has areas of hypersensitivity and extreme nerve damage. I really wanted to show the sensual curvature of the foot, but also the extremes within one scar. Where the scar finishes it is light, hardly noticeable. But, just a couple of inches away, it is heavy, gnarly and extreme, with an almost reptilian-like texture.”

THIN RED LINE

“This a very simple image that represents one of the most severe surgeries that I’ve had. The area was operated on 22 times over a nine-year period, and turned the bottom part of my left leg from facing backwards to facing forwards. A complex set of procedures involved the breaking and resetting of individual bones within the foot and leg, and completely removing the fibula, allowing the limb to be gradually rotated over a period of years. This image obviously downplays the severity of the procedure."

ABSTRACT d-FORMED:

“Here, I’ve hidden the flesh with various coloured latex and photographed it against a plain backdrop, basically showing the limbs in coloured sculptural forms. I’m also expressing that, although we all have this basic form, some of us are very different in terms of our body shape. Basically, we live in an age when what is perceived as ‘normal’ is, by and large, unobtainable by the majority of people. We are constantly being fed images of a particular body shape and size, which is having a major effect in society in terms of self-esteem, well-being and acceptance. Thankfully, more and more people in the public eye are fighting back against this body-shaming and having to be ‘perfect’ all the time. We need to accept who and what we are in terms of how we look, and celebrate our own individual self.”

BLOOD ON THEIR…

“It was great to see Prince Harry and Barack Obama at the Invictus Games and, like the Paralympics, to see disabled people and their athletic achievements shining out on the world stage. But it would be even better to have the same level of equality and social inclusion that everybody else can take for granted on a day-to-day basis. This image is my own response to both this and the previous Government’s lambasting of people with disabilities, ill health and mental health issues – something that cuts across all the main parties.

“Successive policies and cuts in funding, particularly the loss of the Independent Living Fund and mental health budgets, have created an ongoing crisis for people in need of support. This is not only causing needless stress and anxiety to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, but people are actually dying as a result. Due to changes in the welfare system and the cruel use of sanctions, more than 2,800 vulnerable people died within six weeks of a Work Capability Assessment from January 2011 to February 2014. In the same period, around 10,600 people died within six months of being found ‘fit for work.’ Those figures had to be dragged out of the Government and, if anything, the situation is getting much worse.

“Earlier this summer the UN described the Government’s welfare cuts as creating a ‘human catastrophe’ for disabled people in the UK. The thing is, everyone can see this if they look closely enough so, if Prince Harry and Barack Obama would fancy banging a few politician’s heads together and actually making a real difference, I’d be very happy to sit down with them and have a chat about this. Anyone got their number?”

• d-FORMED: An exhibition by Kev Howard. Constantine Gallery, ground floor of Middlesbrough Tower at Teesside University, Middlesbrough. November 15 until December 8, 8am-6pm. Free admission. Exhibition supported by Arts Council England, and part of a PhD project by Louise Logan. Photographer’s Assistant, Clare Hansford.

• To join the exhibition focus group, email l.logan@tees.ac.uk before November 6.

• For more info on Kev’s work, visit kevhowardcreativephotography.com

• For more info on AMC, visit arthrogryposis.co.uk