Photo show confronts a common prejudice: face-ism

Sage Sohier's "About Face" at Blue Sky Gallery puts stroke and Bell's palsy sufferers in a compassionate light, says local social equity expert.

“I don’t discriminate on the basis of appearance,” you might declare. “I am unswayed by age, race, and the earmarks of conventional beauty.”

Fair enough! Good for you! Now you’re ready for the next test, which is giving benefit-of-doubt to a person who seems to be MAKING a face at you. When one side of a person’s mouth curls up in a seeming smile while the other half plunges down into a frown, that person is upset, right? Or there’s something wrong with them? Either way, they want you to leave them alone…right? I mean, it’s right there ON THEIR FACE.

Bad news: you, like all of humankind, are a natural face-ist. Thanks to a lifetime of conditioning, you assume that facial expression reveals mood (smiling=happy, frowning=upset, deadpan=detached), and you let your perception of people’s moods dictate the way you treat them (happy=stay, upset=go, deadpan=detach). This system usually works well, but what happens when it fails?

The show

At the socially provocative Blue Sky Gallery, photographer Sage Sohier confronts such facial anomalies head-on in her exhibition “About Face.” The subjects of the show suffer medical conditions (stroke, Bell’s palsy, etc.) that impose partial facial paralysis. Because they can only partially control their faces, they can only emote asymmetrically. Context notwithstanding, their twisted visages can be simply viewed as arresting artistic images that, as Sohier notes in her artist statement, evoke the “sublime present.” “As a visual artist, I find myself fascinated by the intensity of glimpsing two expressions simultaneously, a literal ‘two-facedness’ that mesmerizes by its terrible beauty.” But the show also more than hints at society’s need to expand the bounds of compassion to embrace those whose faces can’t be reliably “read.”* “I hope these pictures bear witness to the incredible courage required to deal with medical afflictions, especially when they affect one’s primary appearance,” she notes.

An expert opionion

For more insight on that aspect of the show, I approached a local expert on compassion, ability, and social equity: Stephen Arnold, MSW, QMHP, and co-chair of Multnomah County’s adult mental health and substance abuse advisory council. I asked Arnold to look over Sohier’s images and free-associate them with what he’s personally seen in the field.

“One of the things I like about this, is it’s showing people in relationships. Though this form of paralysis makes relationships harder, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. From these pictures, it looks like it’s family members—either nuclear or chosen—who are there supporting them, and that’s really important.”

“I’ve worked with some people who have tardive dyskinesia, one of the side effects of antipsychotic drugs. People on the street when they’re doing some strange lip-smacking, it’s that. It causes incredible difficulty in a person being able to engage with others. There’s a natural repulsion to illness, and an asymmetric face is often indicative of illness; it also deals a lot with how we communicate. Because during a lot of communication, you take your cues from how a person’s face changes. If you’re trying to communicate with a person who isn’t able to give the standard cues, it’s harder.”

“For many of the people we see, there’s a dual trauma: there’s the primary trauma of whatever is the injuring condition, and then there’s the secondary trauma that comes from being socially stigmatized. It’s important for the rest of us to remember that there’s a human being inside there, who may still have a great deal that they can contribute—but also should just be respected for being human.”


“Just think of that face trying to show he’s happy. It would be hard for that face to be interpreted as being happy, though there may be many things in his life that he’s happy about. This is what we’re talking about as the communication challenge.”

“I’ve known people who’ve temporarily had Bell’s palsy, and that can be an eye-opening (and painful) experience to suddenly go from having a normal visual appearance to having an injured visual appearance. The other thing that can be very cruel about such things is that they can cause serious issues with self-esteem far beyond what someone who hasn’t experienced a loss or a prejudice like this imagines. If the condition is temporary, the low self-esteem rarely becomes permanent.”

“For myself, I always remember I’m only one car accident away from experiencing that. By having a good care network in place, we’re caring not only for the people who are injured, but also for ourselves.”

“About Face” is on view at Blue Sky Gallery through September 1.

A. L. Adams also writes monthly column “Art Walkin'” for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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* Bonus material: Comedy team Broken People recently addressed this theme on Funny or Die, albeit in a satirical manner. In NSFW viral video “B-tchy Resting Face,” a fake syndrome of that name stands in for real facial message-scrambling maladies, but the public service takeaway is the same: don’t judge a book by its cover.



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