In 2019, Melbourne photographer Brittany Long began a project called Stairing Through the Lens – which involves taking portraits of musicians on stairs at music venues and music festivals across Australia. Britt says the project is all about “taking back the power and showcasing artists in a different light and from a different perspective.”
Brittany is a wheelchair user, describing herself to me as “a live music photographer on wheels” – she has experienced first-hand the numerous widespread issues people with disabilities face in accessing and working at live music venues and music festivals.
Through her project, she hopes to shed light on the issue of live music accessibility and highlight that everyone deserves to be able to access and enjoy live music, barrier-free.
We caught up with Britt to find out more about the project, as well as how her journey in live music photography all began.
VICE: Hey Britt, how did you get into photography?
Brittany: I went to a P!nk concert in 2018 and snuck in a small camera because I'd heard of what an incredible performer she was. I fell in love. There is literally a 38-photo panorama that I took from the crowd of her lit by phone torches, printed and framed above my bed. That moment was what started it all for me. I was just hooked. Photography has always been something I loved – for as long as I can remember, I've always had a camera in my hands. But when I found music photography, I knew that I found my niche, my passion. Being at a concert with a camera in my hand is my ultimate pure happy place.
When did you first encounter issues being a photographer in a wheelchair?
I reconnected with an old high school friend who was starting a band called A New Way Home, and I was going to photograph them at a show they were playing supporting Perth band Nautical Mile at Bar Open. And so I got to this venue, and the band room was up a big set of stairs. Without even hesitating, I just, you know, slid out of the wheelchair, and slid up the stairs on my bum, pulling my legs behind me. Looking back on it now, I'm like, you know, I really did that.
From that moment, I've always been determined to do whatever I have to do to be able to shoot – whether that's having the pit be too tight for a wheelchair, which is very common, and having to sit on the little barrier platforms and throw one leg one way and throw one leg the other way and like monkey across them… it just became a case of, you know, doing whatever I had to do to get the photo.
What is it about music photography you love?
being able to capture the atmosphere of a live show. It's the passion of the artists, the passion of the performer on stage, the emotion of the crowd – for me, there is none of that anywhere else in any other industry, any other place, you cannot replicate that feeling and emotion. When I take photos, it can be beautiful lighting, it can be a pretty picture, but what I want when I have people see my photos, I want them to feel the passion; feel the atmosphere – whether that be of the performer themselves or the energy of the crowd. That's really important to me.
One of my favourite shots I've ever taken is a photo of a band called Confidence Man. And it was taken at the Dream Machine Festival on Daydream Island last year. And to get onto this stage at that festival was a tiny little ladder. So I had to be physically carried up the ladder, to then have my wheelchair carried and to sit on the stage. And I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when this artist poured a beer all over himself and then shook it out. And you've got the crowd below him and you've got what looks like sweat, but it's beer, like literally flying through the air. And that, for me, encapsulates everything that I love about live music.
It’s such a great photo. Let’s talk about your project, Stairing Through the Lens – how did it start?
It started with a portrait of Australian artist Mallrat on the steps of the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, back in May of 2019. And at the time, a mentor of mine said to me, “Why, why the stairs?” Because at the time, I did it without realising the significance – why I felt so much passion for taking portraits of people on stairs. But that question helped me realise that for me, as a wheelchair user, stairs are a barrier, they're an obstacle. They're something that gets in the way and makes things difficult. So it was about taking back the power and showcasing artists in a different light, and also from an alternate perspective of someone in a wheelchair.
And so Stairing Through the Lens was born. I started photographing as many artists as I could get a hold of. I was reaching out to anyone and everyone, and I was overwhelmed by the support for it. And still am, even now. Some of the people that have said yes to being involved, like Amy Shark and The Veronicas and The Kooks – all these artists understand the significance of it, it’s not just me trying to get a portrait of a famous artist on stairs for no significance, like, there is actually a real cause behind it.
What are the biggest things venues get wrong about accessibility?
I've experienced and I've seen a lot of things, in terms of accessibility, that make me really upset and angry and frustrated. What I found when it comes to accessibility is that it's so focused on ticking boxes. And it's become so tokenistic. You have a festival that's like, “Oh, we've got a brilliant, elevated, accessible platform”… and it's difficult to access the platform. And then when you get to the top of the platform, it's so low that you can't even see the stage or over people's heads. And you're like, well, OK, you've tried, but it's not good enough to try if it's not even worth having it there – because it's obsolete. If it's not doing its job, then why bother having it in the first place? Except all they've done is just “OK. Yep. Big fat tick: Accessible”. Yet we still have festivals not having any accessible toilets. Like, how in this day and age can people get away with that?
If I want to go to an arena show, I don't even bother booking wheelchair-accessible seats anymore, I just leave my wheelchair and dump it somewhere. Like with that P!nk concert, for example, I booked these seats, and they were down a big-ass flight of stairs at Rod Laver Arena. And when I got there in the wheelchair, the security said to me, “Oh, you know, we can relocate you”. And I was like “Nah, take the chair, do whatever, I don't care”. And then I got on my butt and shuffled down the stairs. And I did the same thing to get back up after the show, because I was like, I don't want to be thrown in a corner down the very back of the arena. And that's what happens – the Palais Theatre, the Enmore Theatre, they're all like, “Oh, yep, wheelchairs at the back”, and you can't see because people stand in front of you.
I understand why people in wheelchairs and with disabilities don't choose to go to festivals and to go to concerts. Because A), it's too hard and B), when they get there, they are just met with more obstacles and more barriers that prevent them from being able to enjoy live music. And for me, that's what this project is all about – to highlight that everyone, everyone deserves to be able to access and enjoy live music, barrier-free.
What can festivals and live music venues do to improve accessibility?
When it comes to accessibility, it's important to not just think about being accessible, but also inclusive. Just because someone is in a wheelchair for example, doesn't mean they shouldn't be afforded the same rights as an able-bodied punter to choose to be up front in and amongst the action if they decide to do so. Festivals need to expand their focus beyond “box ticking” and start consulting people with disabilities/non-able-bodied consultants regarding accessibility inclusions, and ALL festivals should have accessible toilets!
All venues should include information about accessibility on their websites, and where possible also include photos of the space, list the number of stairs etc. Even this simple inclusion can make a huge difference. As a whole the music industry needs to consider accessibility not just for punters, but also for people with disabilities working within the industry.
"Stairing Through the Lens" is just the start of the conversation, it doesn't stop there.
Follow Brittany’s work on Instagram.
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