A Series on Creativity and Mental Health with Orlanda James, Featuring Abi James-Miller
Abi is an activist, filmmaker and researcher, who uses social media to share how she navigates style and fashion as a visually impared black woman. We caught up virtually, to discuss how she found her niche in the industry, the joys of finding community through social media and the tips and tricks for how to shop when you’re visually impared, in an industry that has a lot of opinions about what's acceptable. We spoke about what diversity means and how, for Abi, the D in diversity needs to stand for disability, a community wildly underrepresented in film and fashion. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, one in a series of talks with different creatives, as we discuss the role of mental health within our creative disciplines.
PHOTO BY ROBERT YOUNG
Orlanda: So why don't we start with terminology, what terms do you personally identify with?
Abi: I'm personally really like, whatever. But I'm visually impared, I’m blind, I call myself both so I just alternate, you know if you said blind loads, you can say VI for a bit
Orlanda: Just to get some variety in there?
Abi: Haha yeah.
Orlanda: Hear it. So I want to talk about your Instagram page as everything you post is amazing and really informative, both for me as a non disabled person and I'd imagine for visually impared folks too. But, you post cute influencer content as well and I know you also do some documentary-style film work too. So can you tell me a bit about what you do and about how you came to have that page and that platform?
Abi: So a few years back I tried doing a film course in my local area and it wasn't that accessible. I wanted to get into the media industry but I felt a bit disheartened and ended up leaving. I went to Malawi to volunteer and that made me so much more confident, and more optimistic as well. After I came back I was like you know what, I'm not gonna think this industry isn't for me because my film course at this particular place wasn't accessible. And so I went to East Side to do a documentary filmmaking course and that's the organisation that ended up funding my film a few years later. It kind of went full circle, so I started to learn how to make documentaries and then I applied to do a Channel 4 ‘get in’ scheme. I didn't get that but I met my boss through it; I'm a researcher for a black panel debate show. I just started doing more with them and being more in the industry and observing what they did, getting more inspired. Then there was another workshop with East Side, to do another film and that was really cool and that was the first time I'd ever interviewed. And I was like, ‘oh, I actually like this’ and it started making me think differently in terms of being a filmmaker. Because I was trying to find my place, because as a disabled person it's quite difficult to know where you fit in the industry. You end up thinking what can I do? What can't I do? But doing that course allowed me to navigate and be like oh no, I love that but actually, this is kind of more for me. So that's how it started. I don’t know if I’m talking loads?
Orlanda: No, that's super interesting. I feel like in film especially there's a lot that we don't know, there's so many more jobs, so many more possibilities within the industry then I'm cognisant of. And I mean, one of my job's is working in a department within Set Dec so I'm somewhere in that industry and I have the same thing, constantly being like ‘oh my God that you can do that and that that's a thing’. I mean it's complicated anyway and then the added layer of not just ‘what am I actually capable of within this?’ but also, ‘are you going to allow me space?’
Abi: Yeah. I found that when I did the film course, they didn't say anything about researchers, and I was there for a while. I didn't know what one was, so when I read about it I was like 'you can do that?', like watch programmes and just collect facts? I just thought that okay I can't be a camera operator - well not that I can't but you know what I mean - that it's not necessarily a linear thing for me which was good to learn. Once I found out that actually I could do my own thing I started to find myself, to find my place in the industry.
PHOTO BY JESSICA FOUCHER
Orlanda: It's starting to see that future, isn't it? I can see myself in this role and I can see myself enjoying it, I guess. Especially with a researcher, that's such a cool job I think.
Abi: Yeah. I love what I do, it's just like I can be curious about things 'oh I don't know but give me a second' and I'm tapping away to find out. I love finding out and you know, researching and watching stuff and just learning more about something and about people, innit? It's just really interesting. I love that.
Orlanda: How's that been over lockdown? Have you been able to keep up with that job quite easily or has it been affected?
Abi: Umm it has been affected in terms of, like we weren't doing physical shows but we did do online shows. But honestly, you're the first person I've actually been on Zoom with in so long because I was so terrified of it, especially in groups. I think I'm fine doing it one on one but when it's so many people it gives me such anxiety. I really struggled with that during lockdown and because our team is so big, it's like 20 people. And struggled with being able to be comfortable in my skin or to contribute because you know, as a researcher, you do have to contribute ideas and stuff like that. I felt so shy and yeah, I don't know what the Zoom did to me.
Orlanda: It is a weird platform. I'm certainly very grateful for being able to connect with people this way and I have family that aren't in the UK and so just being able to FaceTime is amazing. But it's taking away my empathy, and my way of connecting to people seems to be quite different. There seems to be this weird guard between, you know?
Abi: Yeah, yeah, I feel that. I'm not always sure, you know because I can't see very well, if you've got the screen and someone's nodding I can't see you nodding. So it's a hard balance, isn't it? When you're trying to figure out how to communicate when you're not sure of what the other person's body language is or what's going on at the other end. I think that's why it's been interesting but you know, a new normal.
Orlanda: Yeah, new normal. But a normal for you that presents an extra challenge that many of us don’t come up against. One of the things I think you do really well is highlight the process of what it's like to shop, especially shopping online right now and thinking about being in a pandemic and what is the new normal for everyone. Could you talk a little to that, about what the process of shopping is for you? I know you said recently on Instagram about using the get-the-look tab for example.
Abi: Oh, yeah. Yeah, no, I didn't realise how it worked until I did my fashion film. It was weird that that opened up a world which, obviously, I was interested in before we started making it but the more I delved into and talked about inclusive fashion, the more cognisant I became of what was going on or what wasn't happening or y’knowwhatImean? And I was coming up against barriers, but then it was so much bigger than that. But yeah, I found the little things I did like the get-the-look thing was actually, like there are a lot of things that brands do that they just don't package in terms of being inclusive. I always get asked ‘oh, where do you get your clothes’ or ‘I can't shop because’ you know. People just feel like shopping isn't for them and I find that so sad, because fashion is so much of my identity. I feel so much more confident if I've got a nice outfit on but if you don't know what you're buying, there's so much anxiety when you're worried about how people perceive you anyway, because of your disability or whatever. And so if you think you have one black sock and one white, you know, whatever, like if you're not wearing matching things you think people might judge you more. So that's what a lot of VI people really worry about. I mean, I find it useful when I'm actually just being a bit of a lazy shopper, if actually that outfit is great I'm just gonna put that all in my basket. And yeah, it's just as fun and simple as that.
PHOTO BY ROBERT YOUNG
Orlanda: It's nice to know that even if it's completely by accident, they've managed to make something that is helpful and inclusive.
Abi: Yes. And it's just highlighting to the people that aren't going on the sites because they're scared, I'm just telling them actually, this shop is accessible. If you just really like the outfit then buy it, get the whole thing.
Orlanda: I mean, fashion is such a wanky and opinionated industry generally, which is something that we both know, having danced around the fashion world for a little while. There are funny rules around what's cool, what's stylish, how you dress and even how you shop, and that's cloaked in loads of ableism and loads of different issues and outdated ideas. We are slightly running out of time, but I just want to ask you before we wrap up about visibility and community in relation to social media. Have you found good support networks through Instagram? Has there been challenges in being on that platform?
Abi: I found it, yeah, really good actually. I think the film helped me to find more people; people would message and I'd just hear about certain things and I was just seeing more people represented. It gave me hope actually, in terms of Instagram, although yeah it has its bad points I think it has a lot of good points in terms of making black women really care about and value, like their natural hair for example. You know I saw that it was happening and even if the main fashion industry, like the fashion councils, aren't doing anything, there are people out here who are celebrating us. I think social media is coming more for young people, like we're looking at social media to learn how to see ourselves, to see how other people live and how they value themselves and it inspires you to think like okay, they're black and they look beautiful or they’re an amputee and they're really celebrating it. And so you start seeing it, instead of only consuming media where you're not really seeing yourself, which then widens your horizons about what beauty is. At least that's what I've found.
Keep up to date with Abi @the_abi_spin on Instagram and watch her short film Diversity in Fashion - Time for Change here