Music, and especially live music, has the ability to unite people from all walks of life. Whether you are within the confines of a small room watching a local band or in a huge stadium hollering at an international headline act, there is a collective passion and energy moving to the same rhythm. That feeling is electric and energising. But imagine if you were unable to have this experience, with something so seemingly small and every day – a staircase, inaccessibility to toilets or a feeling of being unsafe – a barrier to being a part of this community?
On Saturday 8 May, Amplify will bring to light the experience of being Deaf and disabled in the Victorian music industry, at Collingwood Yards. The one-night showcase is the result of Arts Access Victoria’s new mentorship program Music Makers, which pairs ten Deaf or disabled people from the music community with industry peers to explore and develop their practice. There will be musical performances from Irene Zhong and mentor Parvyn Singh, Luna Vexa, Carmen Robertson, Chris Wright and more. Woven between the performances will be a panel on disability in the music industry, led by renowned access advocate, Eliza Hull, as well as a conversation between mentoring pair Brittany Long and Michelle Grace Hunder, on navigating access in music photography.
As part of the Amplify event, we shared a conversation with Brittany Long, a Melbourne based live music photographer on wheels, on why music and the community is so important to her. During her career, Brittany has captured well-known artists such as Tash Sultana, Rob Thomas, Boy Zone, Vanessa Amorosi, The Veronica’s and Alice Cooper. She also regularly contributes to online publications, including Girl at a Rock Show and Amnplify.
Check the interview below and register for the event via the RSVP link here and help connect, celebrate and amplify our Deaf and disabled music community. Everyone deserves to be able to enjoy live music, not just able-bodied people.
Brittany and Michelle working together as part of the Arts Access Victoria Music Maker program // PHOTO: KATE DISHER-QUILL
--If you feel comfortable sharing your story on losing the ability to speak, and then the ability to move your body?
I've been using a wheelchair since 2016 when I first got an illness, shortly after getting back from the Great Barrier Reef. It then attacked my vocal cords and I lost the ability to speak for eight months, progressively getting sicker over the year. On the 9th of November, I was at the dentist, just a random time and place and my body shut down, and I haven't been able to move my legs voluntarily since.
-- How did you ensure you didn’t let it hold you back from achieving what you have already done at such a young age?
The wheelchair is not something I allowed to define me, it’s not something that is going to stop me, it's just acting as my legs while mine don't work, but without it, I wouldn't be able to go to gigs, so it's both an obstacle and something that assists me. Sometimes the wheelchair is really hard, but being at a lower angle it also gives me a unique perspective that the other photographers don't have, so that makes me that bit different. Use it to your advantage and make it work for you, as opposed to against you. It’s only a barrier if you make it one.
Ideally everywhere would be accessible, but where it doesn't exist, I adapt and make ways around it - I butt shuffle up and downstairs or sometimes bands will assist me. I try to make do with what I have but the support I receive is really, really amazing and people will do everything that they can in their power to help me out.
-- How and when did you become obsessed with music?
I was always that person who'd never been to a concert, I guess I lived under a rock. I didn't really listen to music unless it was on the radio, which I was only listening to for the competitions not for the music. In some kind of twisted fate, in 2017, I won tickets on the radio to The Chainsmokers gig at The Sidney Myer Music Bowl, and ended up at my first live music concert, and I just loved it. At that point I'd only ever seen The Wiggles and High Five.
-- When did you realise you wanted to fuse your passion for music and photography?
The concert that made me fall in love with music photography was P!nk on her Beautiful Trauma tour in 2018. I went to the last Melbourne show and snuck in my small Sony camera because it looked non-professional, and I took photos from the audience, and I fell in love. I fell in love with everything about it - the atmosphere, the passion on stage, and the unity of everyone who had come to see to see this musician, from all walks of life and of all ages. There's just something about the atmosphere at a concert that's not matched anywhere else and basically the rest is history and I'm addicted, I can't stop and I can't get enough.
-- Some of your images are incredible – filled with colour, energy and passion. It’s crazy to think about how photography can capture one tiny moment in time which in real life is loud, sweaty, energised, united. What do you find rewarding about live music photography?
There’s just something about live music photography that has truly taken my heart. I love the fact that nothing about it is posed, you never know what you’re going to get, you can’t control anything and you’re constantly having to think on your feet, looking for the light everywhere. You’re literally given an insight into a musician’s world and capturing them on a stage which is truly the biggest honour. Being behind a camera and shooting live music, especially in a photo pit is my happy place.
Some photographers think live music is too intimidating as it happens so fast, but that's the thing I love about it. It’s that ability to capture what's there. I can't imagine my life without it. I'm so, so, so lucky that I found it and found the industry and the amazing support network of music photographers, not just in Melbourne but all over the world.
-- You also started a project about photographing artists on stairs, taking back the power of something that would usually pose a problem to people in a wheelchair. How do you hope the project will have an impact?
The portrait series involves photographing artists on stairs at various music venues and music festivals across Australia. It currently has about 140 artists involved from the likes of The Veronica's to Conrad, The Hoodoo Gurus and plenty more. The project started with a portrait of an artist called MALLRAT, and it was originally just going to be a series called The Corner Steps (shot at The Corner Hotel) with no real significance behind it. Then Michelle Grace Hunder, who I've been lucky enough to be mentored by through the Arts Access Victoria Music Makers program, challenged me on this.
Stairs, as a someone who uses a wheelchair, are typically something that are associated with negativity and being an obstacle and a barrier. I wanted to take back the power and showcase artists in a different light and from a different perspective, while also raising awareness about accessibility at music venues, not just in Melbourne but Australia-wide. I’m challenging the industry to not only be accessible but be inclusive.
Personally, until I ended up in a wheelchair, I had no idea how much of the world is supposedly accessible but is actually inaccessible. Simple things like having a step to get into a restaurant or a café can be a barrier for someone. The project is about getting the conversation started - making people aware and starting to think about the world from a different perspective, because that's what being in a wheelchair has given to me, a whole new perspective.
--Reading some of the experiences you’ve had at previous events or festivals (ie no disabled toilets, the wheelchair platform not being at the right height etc), it seems incomprehensible that these decisions aren’t made in consultation with the right people. In your opinion, how can society do better and ensure that the future is accessible for all?
A lot of places will just tick the box to say they are wheelchair accessible but there's no actual thought about what that means. Bigger venues like Rod Laver Arena have a sectioned off wheelchair accessible area, so they're considered accessible, but it’s at the very back of the arena, so just how inclusive is that space? Or festivals, having gravel and stages being miles apart from each other.
Or sometimes for concert goers it’ll be flat and accessible but for me as a photographer, to go to a side stage or backstage, there’s often extra obstacles and barriers. I've shot festivals where they've had wheelchair platforms but once you get up onto the platform, it’s too low – initially you can see the stage over the crowd but as soon as the crowd gets up on people’s shoulders, the platform becomes obsolete, essentially.
The industry needs more thinking, the logistics and everything, as opposed to just ticking the boxes. It’s really important to understand every aspect of it, for everyone involved in the event. And that starts with people like me saying what is actually considered inclusive.
-- Is there anyone you’ve seen that has listened and adapted to inclusivity advice?
There's been quite a few but one of the most recent ones was Laneway Festival last year. I'd spoken to a friend who shot Sydney and they warned me the pits were really, really tight. So I reached out to the Melbourne team, mentioned that I'm in a wheelchair and asked if there was any way that the pits could be made a bit wider. When I got to the festival, they had made the pits wide enough for me to get into.
--What excites you about the AMPLIFY event and the community that surrounds it?
Working with Arts Access Victoria has been very eye opening and I think that's why we really need more of these conversations. People with a disability, it doesn't make them any less, it simply means they might need a certain device or something that will help them assist them to do something that someone who is otherwise able bodied can do differently. The community is so supportive, they don't view me any differently, they only see me for the work I do, and the person that I am and it's the best.
Collingwood Yards, 35 Johnson St, Collingwood
Opening night: Saturday 8 May, 5-9pm
Exhibition: 9-16 May 9-16, 10-4pm
Accessibility includes AUSLAN interpreting, audio describing (including live-audio describing of performances), wheelchair access, relaxed performances, on-site support workers and accommodations for support animals. For more information or individual access requests, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vintage Trouble at The Corner Hotel // PHOTO: BRITTANY LONG
MAIN IMAGE: Brittany Long at work // PHOTO: EUGENE CANTY PHOTOGRAPHY
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