Justin Cooper is a Black visual artist and disability advocate who has been working in visual art professionally since 2012. The lack of media representation amongst people with disabilities motivated him to work on his documentary film called The Wheelchair Chronicles. During this project, Camile DeBose guided his early creative work and influenced him to focus on processes in his work that has shaped who he is as a person, artist, and leader in the disability community.
This led to Justin's involvement in activism with the disability community through the Young Professionals Council at Access Living. This work opened his eyes to how the issues of affordable housing, city operations, mental health, and the intersections of race and disability plague our community. It wasn’t until he was part of the disability community that seeing badass people doing what they want and doing things that people told them they couldn’t or can’t do changed how he viewed himself as an artist. Justin wanted to do more. It was an awakening for him. It’s more than just showcasing his travels, it's about the ability to go places in his wheelchair.
In the early phases of the COVID-19 lockdown, Justin took a photo under the train tracks in the middle of an empty street. This got a lot of attention because normally this space would be inaccessible because of traffic. When people look at his work, they don’t see the behind-the-scenes or planning that goes into it. He wanted people to understand what it took and what it takes for him to do this. Focusing on accessibility in the disability community both as an advocate and activist is central to his photography.
Justin has a love for street art. Observing it is as much about the space as it is about the work. Growing up it was a struggle to navigate outside, his school and neighborhood were inaccessible. He didn’t have access until he got my power chair and could move out. Then he could freely go out and that has given Justin the freedom to do what he wanted as a visual artist. Having the ability to see everything as he travels influences him and his work. Looking out the window on the train, something will catch his eye. Justin wants to go there and see how he can navigate in that area? That’s what drives his art as a wheelchair user.
Part of this inquiry about accessibility for various impairments is driven through different group collaborations. Community and collaboration are so important for the disability community now and for future generations. It doesn’t matter which background you come from, disabled people learn from each other, and it’s important that we continue to do that, so the disability movement doesn’t die, and disabled artists continue to thrive. The tools Justin has learned in collaborations, he takes with him into the next phase of what he does as a disabled artist and activist.
Through Justin's art, people see through his lens the real issues of accessibility, affordable housing, and other issues of the disability community. Disabled people see and understand his work. He sees the work he does as a bridge to advocacy. Justin shares his story but also the stories of the disability community. He wants his work to be inclusive of the non-disabled community as well because they might not be exposed to these issues. Inclusivity is important to him because he is an intersectional artist. Justin is a part of many communities that intersect with each other. Representing and including these are important to him as a Black artist.
Currently, He's considering what he sees in his travels and sharing these stories. This is often about inaccessibility. Seeing the lack of understanding people have towards accessibility influences him to invoke change through his work. Justin's photography though seen as an “ordinary photograph” provides a conceptually rich disability narrative by showcasing space and displacement. His lens shows who is and isn’t welcome.
Justin's work centers on physicality. Taking photos is tied to his connection with his wheelchair. It is an extension of him. His process is inspired by disabled dancers Kris Lenzo and Ginger Lane. Their work guides his understanding of the disabled body in the creative process. It isn’t about just pointing and clicking but the interaction between the space, the camera, himself, and his chair. Justin is one with his chair in the creative process.
Through his work Justin creates engagement. It’s not only the photos but what it took to get them. To start a bigger dialogue about accessibility. He wants to immerse people in his process as an artist and what he does in his wheelchair--that is the true aspect of chronicling and showcasing everything Justin does in his activism and travels.