Upper Valley Photographer Wins National Award For Artists With Disabilities
The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is recognizing 15 emerging young artists with disabilities from around the country between the ages of 16 and 25. Aurora Berger of South Strafford is one of them.
About a year ago, Berger, 24, took a series of self-portraits and printed them on fabric at art school. Then, because she was returning to Strafford for surgery, she brought them home with her.
“And I hung these fabric pieces in the woods around my parents’ house, and I would take photographs of them every few weeks,” Berger said. “And it was all about endurance and going back to a place that I hadn’t been in a long time.”
Berger submitted a set of photographs of the self-portraits she’d allowed to weather in the woods to the Kennedy Center's awards competition.
“I still have them,” she said. “And they have deteriorated quite a bit, but they feel somehow much more clearly that they are portraits of me.”
Now one of those images has earned Berger national recognition and an "Award for Excellence." Her work will be featured in a touring exhibition. She’ll receive a cash award and attend a series of professional development workshops and networking receptions in D.C.
Berger has a genetic condition called Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that primarily affects her heart and eyes. She’s been visually disabled her entire life. At first, she said, the camera was kind of a prosthetic lens. But it soon became something more.
"Art really has been a form of exploration into learning about my own body, learning about my own experiences, feeling through those experiences and processing them." — Aurora Berger, Upper Valley artist
“Art really has been a form of exploration into learning about my own body, learning about my own experiences, feeling through those experiences and processing them,” Berger said.
While at home in Strafford, Berger is working as a para-professional at the Newton School, the same, small public school she went to as a kid. But she’s also thinking ahead.
“I’m still putting my work into shows, and I’m working on a manuscript proposal,” Berger said. “And I’m presenting on photography and ‘enfreakment,’ which is basically the problematic, photographing of disabled people.”
Berger herself favors the word “disabled.”
“I prefer it to other alternatives — ‘differently-abled’ or any of those other sort of euphemisms for disability,” she said. “I am disabled. It’s really important to me that it doesn’t get separated from my identity, because being disabled comes with a lot of able-ism and marginalization. And to separate my accomplishments from that would be disingenuous, and would just continue to support the marginalization.”
"I am disabled. It's really important to me that it doesn't get separated from my identity, because being disabled comes with a lot of able-ism and marginalization. And to separate my accomplishments from that would be disingenuous, and would just continue to support the marginalization." — Aurora Berger, Upper Valley artist
Still, when deciding whether to submit to a show for emerging artists with disabilities, Berger weighed the connections and prestige of the Kennedy Center against an aspect of public recognition she calls “inspiration porn.”
“You know, ‘Our achievements are in spite of our disability, rather than because of them, or connected to them’ — which for me, mine certainly is [connected],” Berger said. “And I have no interest in minimizing the disability angle of that, but I also have no interest in just being an inspiration because I’m disabled and also have a career.”
Eventually, Berger expects that career, coupled with her disability, will take her away from Vermont again.
“I cannot drive due to my visual disability,” she said. “And so, between the fact that rent is skyrocketing and there’s no public transit, I really don’t think I will be staying in Vermont. But, I mean, I’m glad I got to come back for a while.”