For the past ten years, Upstream Arts has collaborated with professional photographers and members of our disability community to explore deeply human questions of representation through the uniquely striking lens of portrait photography. How do I want to be seen, and how do others see me?













In 2010, when the “selfie” trend was skyrocketing in popularity ... click for more

In 2010, when the “selfie” trend was skyrocketing in popularity, Upstream Arts came together with New York-based photographer Dirk Anchütz and our community of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to collaborate on their own selfie photo shoot, their own proclamations of “I am here; this is who I am.” That first studio session, we experimented with asking our participants to take a self-portrait with a remote clicker (look closely at the portraits to see if you can spot them!) and then asking them to direct a peer in a portrait.

Finally, we paired the two portraits together in a diptych: an ancient format where two photographs were hinged together, both for their protection and for greater utility as alter pieces of devotion. Our perception of ourselves is always at least two-fold, how we see ourselves and how others see us. Sometimes they match up, and many times – especially for our disability community – they don’t.

How do we hold the whole of ourselves in complexity and devotion? These are questions we investigate in Upstream Arts classes every day as we explore ourselves and our connections to those around us through the lens of the creative arts.

Over the past decade, Upstream Arts has been proud to co-present photo exhibits with partners in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Charlotte, NC; in schools, faith and community centers, with people with disabilities of all ages. Every portrait tells a story as unique to the individual being portrayed. And that’s exactly what we hope you take away from this exhibit. 

Our Re•Focus curators, coming from different positions within our community, had the challenging tasks of narrowing down from hundreds of portraits to the thirteen you see here. Their goal was not to choose the best but merely offer a taste of the immense diversity within our disability community. 

Several of the portraits we wanted to include are not represented here, because we were not able to connect with the participants to get their renewed consent. We invite you to keep watching and listening for them and their stories in your community. They are there. For this special online exhibit, each diptych is underscored either by an interview with the person in the portrait, or a song or poem that was written during an Upstream Arts residency in which the person pictured was a participant. 

At a time when seeing a person’s full face has become a new act of familiarity, we invite you to (re)focus your attention on members of our community who may be missing from daily consideration, and to ask – why? Part of our 15th anniversary celebration, Re•Focus playfully confronts ableist social isolation with the unapologetically joyful art of the selfie.


Click on any of our portraits to watch accompanying interviews with participants, as well as original Upstream Arts poetry and songs.


Special thank you to all of our portrait participants and families, our partners, curators, and photographers, as well as photographer Jeff Cords for his care in commitment in ensuring the continuation of our photography exhibits. You can learn more about Jeff and his work here

Love our work?

Help us reach our $35,000 goal to expand our open to the public self-advocacy classes for adults with disabilities by June 30!

We’re expanding our offerings, and we need your investment to do so! Help us reach more individuals than ever before with a one-time or recurring contribution of any amount here.

Re•Focus is on view now through June 30! Share on social media and tag us at @upstreamarts


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