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Pictures of hope

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An exhibition of posters aims to challenge the perceptions of severe spinal cord injury and show that life is still worth living.

“I DIDN’T want to have heaps of wheelchairs in the photos,” says photographer Mark Chew of his current exhibition. “You are not pretending that they are not in the wheelchairs but I wanted to show that there is more to them than their injuries. That it wasn’t all doom and gloom.”

Chew, 41, was asked by the Austin Hospital to create a series of posters to show that spinal cord injury need not be the end of an active and interesting life. It was, initially, something to inspire patients in Rehabilitation — a look at a potentially productive future at a time when hope is lost.

“It was never meant to be an exhibition,” he says.

What it was meant to be, says the Austin Hospital’s manager of community integration and leisure services, Sal Dema, was an invitation for people affected by severe spinal trauma to learn about other people with spinalcord injuries.

“Just an eye-catching photo that would hang on the wall in the ward, and then a few lines about their own story and the invitation to go into that story a little more,” he says.

While Chew’s photographs started out as “a useful way for newly injured patients to have a sense of what’s possible”, the transition to the series of 11 posters that is on display at the Transport Accident Commission is something that Dema hopes might have broader benefits.

“We would like to use it as a way of educating community as well,” says Dema. “One of the things we find is that people who are newly injured have preconceptions about what spinal injury means.”

One of the images taken by Chew — a commercial photographer who donated his time to the project — shows Cameron Toomey, 35, surrounded by members of the lacrosse team he coached until last year. Ten years ago, before a fall down a stairwell at a relative’s house left him with a broken neck and C5-C6 Quadriplegia, Toomey used to play the sport himself.

“I had been in the national lacrosse team and went from being at the top of my sport and very involved in playing at the highest level to suddenly being in a wheelchair,” he says. “Before that I thought the worst thing that could happen to me was that I would twist my ankle or something. I never imagined this.”

Toomey’s decision to pose for the poster series, he says, was made with a view to help others.

“When I first had my accident, I met these quadriplegics and they drove cars and jumped out of planes and it’s very difficult to imagine yourself doing that. I drive. I am quite active. I have been married for three years and I have children that have been conceived after my accident. My wife, Nicci, and I run a business — Auslax — a lacrosse and cricket shop in Ashburton and it’s been great to keep an involvement in the sport I love. I still coach my son in the under-11s.”

Tanya Clarke, 31, was a 19-year-old university student who planned to be a primary school teacher before a car accident in 1993 changed everything.

“You want to look the way you did before,” Clarke says of her early weeks raging against a diagnosis of C6-C7 Quadriplegia. “I went to rehab and Mum asked the nurses what clothes I should bring in and they told her tracksuits and T-shirts. I never wore clothes like that. Tracksuits?”

Six months later, Clarke returned to university with a new interest in computers and a change in career direction. Now, with a diploma in software development, she runs her own small business as a web designer and has also maintained her love of clothes shopping.

“You have an accident and it’s a big tragedy and a terrible loss but there is life afterwards,” she says.

“It’s still possible to have the life you have always wanted to. When I was in hospital, I met some women who showed me that their lives had gone on to be really active and normal and I would like to be able to show that to other people too.”

While Clarke and Toomey — as well as the other nine people in the posters — have embraced life since their injuries in a way that is clearly inspiring, Dema says that those in the exhibition were not chosen because of their high achievements.

“We just consulted with staff at the spinal unit and asked them who had established themselves back in the community and were living balanced lives,” Dema says.

“We’re not trying to put these people up as exceptional people — just show that they are ordinary people doing ordinary things, even with a spinal cord injury.”

Chew says he appreciated the chance to explore a component of their lives, away from Disability. “They all had something about them that I wanted to capture to show what their lives had been since their injuries — the wheelchair rugby player, or the women and their children, or the guy who ran a winery. They are just getting on with it.”

The exhibition is at the TAC building, 222 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, until March 23.

By Claire Halliday

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