Interview with Libbi Groves

PR:     As this is your first exhibition can you say a little bit about your studies or background in photography?

 LG:      I studied Fashion PR and Communication at Southampton Solent University and then worked in fashion for 3 years before coming to Hugh Baird College to do the Photography and Visual Merchandising course. I started photography properly when I was 16 at college. I used a DSLR camera and went from there. At Uni I won a competition about diversity judged by Caryn Franklin – it was a photo of a rugby       player with one arm. I did the photo in a studio setting. The image was featured in London Fashion Week, about 5 years ago. It felt like a big achievement.


PR:     Did that push you in a particular direction?

LG:      I would describe myself as a ‘Creative’ – I have a lot of creative ideas – but I’m more pushed towards photography. I go from the ideas to the   end result before I actually do it – maybe because of my brain damage?


PR:     Can you explain a bit more?

 LG:      Because of my cerebral palsy I have always had clear markers and goals. I have to have end goals. I am naturally creative. If you gave me a project I would have ten ideas. It can be frustrating. I’ve always had to have it.


PR:     Why always…?

 LG:      If I didn’t there would be no reason to progress. If I’m not striving for something I’d be stagnant. I’ve always pushed myself to get through – to get through the next operations (they could be life-threatening at times).


PR:     Does this help you to represent others? Are you speaking for others too?

LG:      It’s on my birthday when it comes back. I kind of mourn the person I could have been. It’s remembrance. Going back to representation –  because I have a voice and I am able to speak my mind I like to think I can represent the voices of a wider range of people. That’s why I reflected on 25 years of my life through portraiture. There are lots of negative things that have happened to do with my disability.


PR:     How did self-portraiture help you consider those things?

LG:      I was considering many different things – looking at barriers and attitudes.


PR:     A reflection on adverse experiences?

 LG:      So many people think of disabled people in a negative way. But for me my disability is real. It affects me every moment of the day. It’s just who I am. People don’t realise.


PR:     Is it about advocacy and warning? Does it include grief about the unlived life?
LG:      Not really grief. It’s the unknown. Would I have been better at some things? I’ve never found out why it (the cerebral palsy) happened or had anyone to blame – so the blame has always come back on me.    There’s an emptiness and nothing I can fill it with. No amount of love or hair appointments….it’s always there. The only thing I can do is manage it. I’m very conscious of the hour I was born – on my birthday, it hits me. I’ve never met anyone who understands it. This is the first time I’ve spoken about it.


PR:     Would it help to have factual answers? Isn’t there a link between cerebral palsy and poor obstetric care?

LG:      I’ve always been told there was an issue around my birth. In the North there is 23% higher rate of disability than the South. I felt very much in a minority down South. The first experience I had meeting someone else with cerebral palsy was when I was 13 , my friend up the road.


PR:     Did you have a positive school experience?

 LG:      I was bullied at school. They thought I was a hypochondriac. I wasn’t a typical teenager.  I wasn’t happy to let my morals go. There were some physical threats too. The worst had me screaming at them.  In year 11 when I was 15 I had to have surgery for the bottom of my spine and I did my GCSEs six weeks later. A profound experience for me was doing work experience in a dress shop and they made my prom dress. I designed it. It was a silver A-line prom dress with a T-bar at the back to cover my scar. It was low-cut made of a silk organza material with Swarovski crystals and tiara and I turned up in a vintage car.


PR:     Are you happy about what you’ve achieved?

LG:      I never thought I’d get to this stage.   My Dad was an intellectual and really encouraged my studies, in particular creativity. Mum and Dad are proud of me. They thought it would be great if I went to college – and now I’m thinking about doing a Masters and this exhibition. I have had to be a fighter. If you give in to weakness you let them win. I learned that from my Dad. He is half Trinidadian and one of 6 kids       brought up on the Isle of Wight without his Dad around, so this really influenced his character and determination to achieve his full potential..


PR:     Would you say you are a perfectionist – does that carry a certain anxiety too?

LG:      Yes, perfectionist, some anxiety with that – and issues of diversity. But I wanted to be classed as normal. Yet now, at 25, I’m changing my opinion about myself. While doing the Photography course I’ve been looking at myself in terms of ability. I can achieve and do well. I am my own person.


PR:     How did you find out about Open 3 ?

LG:      I found out through Thomas Dukes, the Curator at Open Eye Gallery. I was a bit hesitant to begin with as I went to a centre like Stick N Steps (the focus of my exhibition) when I was younger. It was good in some ways but has a lot of memories linked with adversity. Now I’m happy with it. It’s going really well. I’m a lot more engaged with the classes there, 2 or 3 weeks in. It’s an early stage but I’ll have to get printing soon. It’s good too if the parents want a meeting with me about the challenges.


PR:     What about your camera – do you have a preference?

LG:      I’m using digital, I’m using a Canon at the moment. I’ve also bought a polaroid camera which I’ve let the children use to explore and experiment with.


PR:     Can you tell me a bit more about Stick N Steps?

LG:      The ages range between 2 – 15 and I’m working with all nine groups there. I’m using the letters in the name for each group to work with. It   will be wall art. It will include around 120 images in a grid format each of which be framed in black as well as the nine characters used in Stick N Step. I want to reflect lots of layers of emotional experience. I want the exhibition to reflect a big heart and then something more intimate too.


PR:     Do you have a favourite photographer or influence?

LG:      I really like Rankin. He’s open about disabled people. I like the work he’s done with Kelly Knox, the first really well known disabled model.


PR:     How far does autobiography matter?

LG:      I think that practice that comes out of your own life experience really depicts a person very well.


PR:     Are you working mainly in portraiture?

LG:      I recognised myself as a fashion photographer – now I’m thinking more of documentary photography – documenting a person’s life experience of disability, for example, but why not put them in Gucci as well? I want to pull both together – in a political method.


PR:     What plans do you have?

LG:      I’m at a cross-roads. I love being creative and doing it full time. I want to show people that disability is only a word. It isn’t a number on a spread-sheet in an office. It’s daily lived experience. I hope those who treat it as a number are never in my position.   It’s a cruel realisation. It will hit you hard.


PR:     Can you say a little more about the exhibition?

 LG:      The photographs will be A3. It will be the name (STICK N STEPS) on the wall. I hope it becomes a gift to them as well for their new centre in Runcorn once the exhibition is over.