Sophie Klafter's Award-Winning Portrait Series Drawn From Her Unique Physicality

“Part of the beauty is that my subjects share my excitement for what I’m trying to accomplish“

Born with albinism, Justin works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is building his career as a model.© Sophie Klafter
Steve is a comedian who was born with muscular dystrophy. He is working on a comic web series spreading awareness of disabilities with his new show called "Uplifting Dystrophy."© Sophie Klafter
Geri is a disability awareness advocate and speaker who was born with diastrophic dysplasia.© Sophie Klafter
Klafter’s award-winning portrait “Dad and Me.”© Sophie Klafter

On opening night at her photo exhibit at Brooklyn's Invisible Dog gallery, Sophie Klafter stops in front of her portrait of a wheelchair-bound man named Steve who was born with muscular dystrophy. "We met on [the dating site] OKCupid," she says with a smile. "We're just good friends. He's a comedian and I've watched his performances. He's funny but intense—he makes people laugh about uncomfortable things."

A 2013 graduate of Bard College’s photo program, Klafter has spent nearly three years creating portraits of people coping with physical challenges for a series called “corpoReality.” “Each person I’ve photographed has a unique story to tell, and my job is to help tell it,” she says. “Through this series I hope to make those who are able-bodied more comfortable with and compassionate toward those with differences. I believe people with physical differences are too often judged solely by their appearance—being ignored, or even worse, seen as spectacles.”

Klafter speaks from experience. She lives with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare neuromuscular disorder that affects motor and sensory nerves throughout the body, especially in the feet and lower legs. Her current series grew out of a set of self-portraits she started as a student. The new work earned Klafter a Tierney Fellowship grant in 2013 and has been shown in a solo exhibition at Annandale-on-Hudson and at Photoville in Brooklyn. “Since childhood, I have had to be sharply observant of my surroundings—details such as little grooves in the pavement or uneven bricks on the sidewalk could make the difference between a pleasant outing and a catastrophic fall,” Klafter writes in her artist statement. “My unique physicality eventually evolved into the desire to document the natural variations of the human body.”

Klafter inherited CMT from her father; it was her self-portrait “Dad and Me” (slide 4) that won the 2014 VSA Emerging Artist Award of Excellence from the Kennedy Center. Her other subjects include Sarah, a painter, sculptor, and harpist born with no legs and one complete arm; and Geri (slide 3), who was born with diastrophic dysplasia and advocates about disability awareness. “I spend a lot of time finding my subjects, but some I meet in random ways,” Klafter says. “I’ve posted ads on signposts and Craigslist. I’ve contacted hospitals, rehab centers, and support groups.” She finds the synergy with her subjects gratifying. “They’re proud to be part of this series, and I’ve never had to go out of my way to convince them,” she says. “They might be bashful at first, but I would never publicize an image of someone who wasn’t comfortable with the portrait I took of them.”

One guest at Klafter’s gallery show is Justin, an albino fashion model who recently sat for a portrait (slide 1). What was that like? He pauses and grins. “She knows what she wants,” he says, “and she’s not afraid to ask for it. She’s firm. But it was fun.”

Klafter had asked Justin to pose in a pair of briefs. “His body is beautiful,” she explains. Her own self-portrait in the series is a nude, showing the scars and imperfections resulting from her disease. “I included myself because I wanted people to understand that photographing people this way is not exploitative, but the opposite,” she says. “I want my subjects to know that I’m willing to expose myself as much as I’m asking them to reveal themselves. My subjects are people whom I identify with.”

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