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Change how you see, see how you change: In conversation with Rick Guidotti
Rick Guidotti spent 15 years as a fashion photographer in New York, Milan, Paris, and London, working for fashion magazines and designers, from Elle to Yves Saint Laurent.
Twenty-five years ago, he gave all that up to become the founder and director of Positive Exposure, a non-profit organization focused on changing societal attitudes towards individuals living with genetic, physical, behavioural, or intellectual difference.
Through photography, film, educational programs, and collaborations with hospitals, medical schools, educational institutions, galleries, museums, non-profit organizations, and advocacy groups, Rick is working to help the world see difference differently.
Rick Guidotti delivered the Faculty of Dentistry’s annual 2021 JD McLean Lecture on 24 September 2021. Established in 2004, the JD McLean Lecture was created in honour of former dean, Dr. James D. McLean. He believed it is important for health-care professionals to broaden their view and hear from leaders in fields outside dentistry.
Q: Can you talk a bit about Positive Exposure, how it started, and the impact it has had on both you and the people you photograph?
Rick Guidotti: When I worked as a fashion photographer, I was living in Milan, Paris, and here in New York, and I was shooting great models for great clients. And I was always being told who and what was beautiful. But I’m an artist and I see beauty everywhere – not just on the cover of magazines. One day I had an experience on the streets of New York – which I’ll talk about in my presentation – that changed everything for me. That experience made it difficult for me to continue working in the fashion industry. It began to feel small to me and it was not inclusive. I became aware of what beauty really is and that we need to create opportunities to allow more beauty to be seen and heard and appreciated. I created Positive Exposure because I didn’t want beauty to be seen in what I came to see as a limited way and to create opportunities to really enjoy and celebrate diversity.
When you’re walking down the street and you have somebody coming toward you who has a visible difference and you hear your mother’s voice in your head telling you it’s not polite to stare, do you then look away? For the past 25 years, all of my friends living with a difference tell me that looking away can sometimes be more painful than the staring. For me, doing photography and film and collecting stories is a way of settling the gaze, of coming back gently and seeing things a little bit differently. Everything we do is part of a philosophy of changing what you see and of creating opportunities to see beauty and to celebrate it in individuals and communities that are at risk of stigma and exclusion.
Q: What were your first thoughts when you received an invitation to speak to a room full of oral health-care students and faculty members?
RG: I actually do a lot of work with health-care providers and I’ve spoken with half of the medical schools here in the US. We’ve created a whole series of films called Frame, the aim of which is to redefine the art of medical education and to help create greater empathy. I’ve also done permanent installations in several dentistry schools and clinics for people with disabilities here in New York and at the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the early days of Positive Exposure, when I started researching albinism, I was just affronted by the traditional medical photos of naked children with black bars across their eyes, and how medical information is presented in medical textbooks. I wondered how we could change that. So I work with advocacy organizations every year to bring genetic counselling students, nurses, physiotherapists, and other medical professionals together with some of the kids I photograph. I also find it’s really important that, early in their training a health-care provider understands that it’s never what you are treating, it’s who you are treating.
Right now we’re creating several films looking at communication and accessibility with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Each film explores one of the daily challenges each person deals with that you as a practitioner or a dentist may not see – unless you can see them outside a clinical environment. For me, it’s always about placing humanity first and creating opportunity for discussions and connections.
To return to the question, I felt that there was a great interest here in changing how people living with differences are seen in the medical field and medical education and I really wanted to introduce the great friends I have been photographing and working with over the years to your community. The other thing is that, even though I do a lot of talking, I feel that it’s also important to listen. Because that’s how we’re going to create the next great thing and develop better tools. So I am looking forward to hearing what your community has to say and what their needs and ideas are.
Q: There appear to be some strong parallels between the work you do at Positive Exposure and the work of some of the Faculty of Dentistry’s clinics in the sense of helping people to regain their confidence and self-esteem, to smile again, and see themselves differently. Would you agree?
RG: Without question. I get the sense from my interactions with your Faculty that you are advocates for all your patients and that you don’t see them as medical records. It strikes me a person-first philosophy. And anything we can do to work together, to teach each other, and learn from each other will help us to spread awareness and have more of a global impact.
Q: Your work with Positive Exposure started with photographing people with albinism to photographing others with many other disabilities and differences. How has your work changed and evolved and your awareness of other needs?
RG: Although my early photos and an initial photo spread in Life magazine were of people with albinism, it was never about albinism. It was about difference. Positive Exposure very quickly moved to work with all communities that are at risk of stigma and exclusion, including those living with genetic, physical, behavioural, and intellectual differences. We’ve also worked with the local trans population here in New York. We want there to be more conversations and a more inclusive world through photography, film, and educational programming.
Q: In the Faculty of Dentistry, we try to give our students opportunities to work with people with special needs so that there are more oral health professionals out there in practices who feel comfortable treating these patients. Do you have any words of advice or inspiration for our students and faculty members?
RG: In the presentation I will be telling the stories of various friends and how connections with them were made. My main words of advice are to always be your authentic self. It changes everything. I do a lot of work with kids. If you’re not authentic or telling the truth with kids and they see that, they can take you down. It’s always about treating someone exactly how you’d like to be treated.
One of my favourite things in the whole world is when I am photographing a kid and they’re glowing and jumping and enjoying a moment in the spotlight. And then I look just past their shoulder to see their mom or their friend also glowing because finally somebody sees the person they love through their eyes. That’s so important. So my advice is always to try to see somebody the way a person who loves them does.
Q: What is the main message you would like our Faculty of Dentistry audience to take away from your lecture?
RG: I’d really like them to be able to realize that this is not a presentation about people with differences. This is about all of us. In every exhibition I create, from the Smithsonian to Conde Nast at Times Square, my photos are always mounted on glass or other highly polished, reflective surfaces. So as you approach these fabulous images, you see this gorgeous person who is going to teach you how to see differently. And you also become aware of your own reflection in the image. It is hoped that viewers will understand that it’s never about them. It’s about us and will always be us.
I also hope that when people in the audience meet somebody who has a difference for the first time, that they not see the diagnosis or the behaviour, but that they see the person.
I’d like to add a third thing I want your audience to do, which is to walk away from the presentation with a million ideas of ways in which we can collaborate or start initiatives in their own communities, or create new tools that will help the next generation of health-care providers take better care of all of us.
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