With a plain, green chair against a floral backdrop, an Iceland artist is showing the diversity and beauty of humankind.
"First and Foremost I Am" is an exhibition of 21 portraits of people with Down syndrome taken by photographer Sigga Ella. Ella reached out to Iceland’s Down Syndrome Association, family and friends to gather a group of people aged 9 months to 60 years old to photograph for the project. The artist chose 21 subjects to illustrate the extra copy of chromosome 21 that causes the genetic condition.
“I spent some time with each person so I could show, as much as possible, who they are,” Ella told The Huffington Post in an email. “I wanted each photograph to show us a person with his or her own special characteristics.”
The exhibition was first inspired by a radio show Ella heard that discussed the ethical questions raised by prenatal diagnoses used to detect birth defects. It provoked Ella, who has a family member with Down syndrome to think “Where are we headed? Will people choose not to keep an embryo if they know it has Down syndrome?” she told HuffPost.
To respond to these questions, Ella began working on her project. “[I wanted] to make people think that we are all unique -- we should embrace and celebrate the diversity of human beings,” she said.
The work’s title comes from an article written by Halldóra Jónsdóttir, a woman featured in the series, who wrote: “ I have Down syndrome but FIRST AND FOREMOST I AM Halldóra. I do a million things that other people do. My life is meaningful and good because I choose to be positive and see the good things in life.”
Ella used this positivity to design the exhibition, maintaining simplicity and choosing a floral background to "underline that all kinds of flowers can grow and flourish together,” she said. She gave no instructions to the people photographed for how to dress or how to pose, wanting everyone to be photographed as comfortable and happy.
The work began as Ella’s final project at the School of Photography in Reykjavik. All portraits were taken at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, and were first shown at the school in February of last year. The exhibition is currently on display at the Reykjavík Museum of Photography, and will move to Poland for the Warsaw Festival of Art Photography on May 15.