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View PointOpinion: Photographing worlds of pain

Opinion: Photographing worlds of pain

Published: 22nd Sep 2021 1:04 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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Deeply troubled by the Abu Ghraib torture-and-humiliation photographs, essayist-novelist Susan Sontag in “Regarding the Torture of Others” wrote: the “photographs are us” because they illustrate “as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality”. Previously, in her Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag had explored atrocity sliceds, as instances through which we exacerbate the radical otherness of the victim.

Sontag made several interesting points about the documentation of others’ pain, notably in the paintings of Goya, and war (from the Brady pictures of the American Civil War to Robert Capa) and lynching photographs (the latter in the collection Without Sanctuary). She argued: “All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic. But images of the repulsive can also allure”.

Capturing Others

Sontag’s focus is on the quasi-voyeuristic photographing of mutilation, injury, suffering and death. How does the photograph, and the photographer, “frame” and “compose” the victim/photographed? In many cases, including Felix Beato (photographer of the 1857 “Mutiny” in India) and the Brady pictures, the bodies were moved and arranged for the photographs, just as the Abu Ghraib torturers arranged the Iraqi and Afghani prisoners in pyramids and humiliating poses.  As Sontag says, the presence of the camera implies the motive of photography. The world is now the subject of such intrusive, extensive and intensive documentation, especially of atrocity (most notably

But what happens when an individual wishes to document her or his own pain, when the victim/object of the photograph is the photographer too? Is pain capturable in photographs? (Numerous vlogs by persons with chronic illness exist now.) In a different medium, two photographers have attempted to document their chronic pain: Rikke Mathiasen and Justin Wee, with different approaches to the body in pain.

My Body, in Pain

Mathiasen, suffering from scoliosis, suffers chronic and intense pain. She was transformed, she said in a piece for the Washington Post, “from the girl, to the girl with the back”. Post-surgery, when she had to “learn to walk again”, as the surgeons told her, she realised that pain is a lifetime state of being.

Mathiasen shows us the tell-tale scar on her back. The elongated, curved scar — in scoliosis the spine is curved sideways — is both, image and injury. It is, literally, pain made flesh. There is, in another photograph, the juxtaposition of two spine X-rays. In one, the curved spine is clearly visible. The second, suspended and positioned against the front of Mathiasen’s body, shows a relatively straight spine. The caption says, “the professionals told me that as long as I stayed physically active, I wouldn’t notice my back any more. I am still waiting for the day that happens”. There is no single day when she is not aware of her back. The fantasy of a straight spine, introjected by seeing others with straight backs, is captured in the X-ray pictures. Metaphors like barbed wires and what look like skewers or scalpels abound in Mathiasen’s pictures, with the skewer appears to be cutting her head off, as her face contorts in pain.

Justin Wee suffers chronic back pain, cluster headaches, chronic fatigue from an undiagnosed condition. How I Hurt was his attempt to document his body’s debilitating pains. Unlike Mathiasen, Wee took recourse to metaphors. An image of a sliced open fruit, with the instrument still embedded in them, capture how pain is an intrusion into the coherence of his body. An open pomegranate lies with screws piercing the halves, a plant clipper lies nearby.  A cream block of plasticine or dough crowned by a white mass shaped like a brain has a hinge embedded in it, indicating that the entire structure is a metaphor for Wee’s spine and head, both constantly subject to the intrusive hinge of pain.

The Dys-appeared Body

Phenomenologist Drew Leder distinguishes between the dis-appearance of the body and the “dys-appearance” of the body. The “normal and healthy body largely disappears”, argues Leder, because we focus on the everyday and, so long as the basic bodily needs are met, we are unaware of our embodiment. We “most easily forget [our] body when it looks and acts just like everyone else’s”. But in sickness, the body reappears to our consciousness as the focus of the experience — what Leder terms “dys-appearance” (“dys” in Greek: abnormal, ill). The body “seizes our awareness particularly at times of disturbance”.

Mathiasen and Wee document this dys-appearance: their worlds, activities, consciousness and subjectivity circumscribed by chronic bodily pain. While it may be a stretch to compare Wee and Mathiasen’s pictures with performances like Mike Parr’s Close the Concentration Camps (2002) in which he had his lips sewn shut and the word “Alien” branded into his thigh with a hot iron to signal refugees indulging in self-harm, a closer inspection of these artists offers a response to Sontag.

We recognise that we share the same corporeal space as Wee, Mathiasen and the refugees, except that the contexts are different. The artists call upon us to recognise that we too could be sufferers, if the circumstances change. In the age of the dis-appearing body and the virtual body, the possibility of dys-appearance haunts us. Fleeing Afghanis squat on the tarmac or patients draw breath with difficulty as they await oxygen tanks. The pictures of the self in agony serve as reminders that we are all potentially dys-appearing.

All bodies are potentially bodies-in-pain.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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