I turned on the water, sat in my shower chair, and took about eight frames. I knew then I was serious about making this into a project.
Artist. Peace activist. Social worker. Published photographer. Disabled person.
To Patricia Lay-Dorsey, ’64, who lives with chronic progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS), none of these labels alone defines who she is. Especially not that last one.
“My diagnosis was like a kick in the stomach,” Lay-Dorsey said. “My body had always done everything I’d ever wanted it to do, and the thought of ending up in a wheelchair was a nightmare. I really couldn’t get my head around it. But I went ahead with my life as best I could.”
Today, 26 years after the diagnosis that turned her world upside down, Lay-Dorsey is an accomplished photographer whose stirring self-portrait project, “Falling into Place,” was published into a book that continues to generate widespread acclaim, including features in the New York Times, CBS News, and Newsweek Japan.
Her path hasn’t been easy, but despite sharp twists and turns, Lay-Dorsey said, it has led her to exactly where she is meant to be.
As a student at Meredith College in the early ’60s, Lay-Dorsey knew she wanted to become a social worker like her mother (“a gutsy woman,” Lay-Dorsey said), Emily Miller Lay, who graduated from Meredith in 1934. Lay-Dorsey’s two sisters also are Meredith alumnae.
After earning her sociology degree from Meredith in 1964, Lay-Dorsey began her graduate studies at the Smith College School for Social Work. A field placement led her to Detroit, where she met her husband. They married in October 1966, one month after Lay-Dorsey earned her master’s degree in social work from Smith.
She started her career working for a family service agency and volunteering in the pediatric unit of an inner-city hospital. “That’s when I discovered I had some artistic talent,” she said. “It popped up when I was drawing with the kids.”
After experimenting with watercolors, she signed up for community art classes and eventually enrolled in Detroit’s College for Creative Studies.
“Then I was full time in the art world for the next 10 years,” she said. She opened a studio downtown, participated in shows, wrote art reviews, and taught classes.
Lay-Dorsey also ran marathons and embarked on long-distance bike treks with her husband. She danced and swam and immersed herself in her Detroit community. She became friends with the homeless people who congregated outside her downtown studio, and from that experience, learned “what it felt like to be invisible,” she said, “which was a privilege, really.”
A passionate advocate for human rights, Lay-Dorsey became involved in peaceful activism during a number of world events over the years, from strife in Central America to war in the Middle East. It was after a community meeting in spring 1988 that her right leg suddenly gave out, causing a bad fall and a sprained ankle.
Lay-Dorsey didn’t think much of it, until she suffered three more falls over the next five months.
Then came the diagnosis.
“I remember sitting in my rocking chair, trying to understand what had just happened, and I couldn’t,” Lay-Dorsey said. “I went into a form of denial.”
One of the first decisions she made was to stop all athletic activity. But, 12 years after her diagnosis, the self-described “fish” got back into the pool. She couldn’t swim a stroke, but pressed on. Now she swims several times a week, works out with a personal trainer, and follows a clean diet. She has never taken MS medications.
“I can’t walk,” Lay-Dorsey said, “but I’m very healthy and strong.”
As her MS progressed, so did her modes of transportation. A cane led to a walker, which eventually led to her first mobility scooter in 2000.
“It had been my nightmare, but it became my freedom,” she said. “It was phenomenal.”
It was then that Lay-Dorsey started recording her daily life in an online journal. After a few years of blogging, she said she grew tired of words and just wanted to take pictures.
So she bought her first DSLR camera in 2006, took classes on fundamentals and digital editing, and as she describes, “became totally obsessed with photography.”
One summer morning two years later, Lay-Dorsey noticed a “puddle of sunlight” in the folds of her nightgown as she sat on the toilet. So she grabbed her camera – always handy in the basket of her scooter – and fired off a few shots. Then she glanced down at her bare foot on the floor, discovered an interesting shadow there, and took another picture.
“But it was the next thought that made me realize this was more than just a few random photos,” Lay-Dorsey said. “I wondered what would happen if I took my camera into the shower. So I did.
“I turned on the water, sat in my shower chair, and took about eight frames,” she said. “I knew then I was serious about making this into a project.”
Lay-Dorsey had grown frustrated over the years with the media’s depiction of disabled people as existing on either end of a continuum: brave and heroic or sad and pitiful.
“It made me think that sometime, someone, a photographer who is disabled, has got to show this from the inside,” she said. “But to do that I knew I would have to face things I didn’t want to look at. I wasn’t ready yet.”
But after her epiphany in the shower, Lay-Dorsey was ready.
She later shared a dozen of her self-portraits in an online community created by photographer David Alan Harvey. His first comment upon seeing her images was, as Lay-Dorsey recalls, “This is a book, and I’ll mentor you on it.”
Thus, her self-portrait project, “Falling into Place,” was born.
“The title, obviously, is about the falls that in some way have become my place,” Lay-Dorsey said. “Not that I would have chosen to be disabled, but I would not be who I am had it not happened.”
Harvey published photos from the project in his online magazine in December 2008. By November 2009, a feature appeared in the New York Times “Lens” blog.
Lay-Dorsey lived and breathed the project for nearly two years.
“It was as if I became two different beings: the photographer and the subject,” she said. “The photographer was relentless and wanted to take pictures of everything, and sometimes the subject did not agree. But the photographer always won.”
Taking self-portraits was the easy part, she said, with her camera’s self-timer and remote-controlled shutter release. The difficulty came when she had to look at the photos on her computer screen.
“Some of them really spooked me, and there are a couple in the book that I’m not fond of, but I knew they had to be there,” she said. “I had to be as absolutely truthful as I could be. Everything had to be authentically what my daily life would be like. It wasn’t easy.”
In 2012, Lay-Dorsey took her work to FotoFest in Houston, Texas. After just one day of portfolio reviews, she fielded two invitations for solo gallery exhibitions.
On the last day of reviews, her life forever changed.
She met with David Drake of Ffotogallery in Wales, because she wanted to participate in a festival that he organized. She showed him her prints, and they parted ways. Two days later, Drake sent her an email saying that he wanted to publish her book. In a word, Lay-Dorsey describes herself in that moment as “stunned.”
They started work in April 2013, along with U.K.-based book designer Victoria Forrest. By October 2013, the book was on press in Belgium and Lay-Dorsey and Forrest were there too.
“I’m very pleased with the book and very grateful to the magnificent people I got to work with,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier. This book has changed everything.”
Today, Lay-Dorsey delivers presentations about “Falling into Place” to universities, disability organizations, and community groups. And she recently was invited to exhibit her project in China.
Despite the hoopla, she remains grounded.
“The project, the book, all of it, I don’t think that’s what’s important,” she said. “What is important is using it as a springboard for discussion about disability.”
Challenges – visible and invisible – are real for each of us, Lay-Dorsey said.
“The question is what you do with them. How do you get going after something has knocked you for a loop? How do you incorporate it into your life in a way that you do more than just survive, that you really thrive? And that to me is the whole point.”
Lay-Dorsey has advice for those inspired by her story.
“If I were ever to have any kind of message that I’d want to give out, especially to young people, it’s this: Push the envelope. Risk. Dare. Jump off the cliff trusting that something will catch you. And it will be something new. And you won’t know ahead of time what it will be. Who would have thought when I was diagnosed with MS that it would end up like this? I would never have imagined it.”
For more information about Patricia Lay-Dorsey and her work, visit patricialaydorsey.com.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Meredith Magazine.