The anonymous patient

Who is she?

I’ve read she’s a she and I’ve also read that she’s Herculine Babin, an intersex woman who later identified as male and wrote a biography in the nineteenth century (famously edited by Foucault), but I don’t know for sure because I haven’t found any sources with her name.

I have only seen the nine photographs that the most famous French photographer, Nadar, took of her around 1860.

I’ve seen her face and her knee socks, the only clothing that covers her body when she’s standing up in front of the camera. I’ve also seen her male and female genitals because she was photographed by Nadar by request of a surgeon, Maisonneuve, and a doctor, Armand Trousseau. 

One of the doctors posed next to her, with his hand in her genitals, inside her body, pointing to the existence of both male and female organs.

What I find even more disturbing than the images is the lack of information about her. The photographs have been preserved in renowned institutions and have been written about in books and articles because Nadar was extraordinarily famous at the time (imagine Annie Leibovitz working with a doctor), and because she’s an intersex patient.

She sits between the specimen and the model; not enough for her doctors to be included in their books, too much for Nadar’s reputation to be acknowledged.

Like her, most of the patients I write about are anonymous. Maybe this is, actually, the most ethical stance: they never consented to have their bodies and their lives on display forever, dissected by strangers 150 years later.

Even in their anonymity, there should be a way to acknowledge their pain, their shame, their fear. The fact that they were there.

As I write my medical photography book, I’ll update the blog with stories about the patients. These won’t be fully-formed thoughts, but more like personal letters to say: hey, I also see you.

Crying in the archives

The first time I did research on medical photography was at the Val de Grâce museum in Paris. I was just starting my PhD and I was interested in First World War medical photographs of facial injuries and reconstruction surgeries. These photographs were kept in the basement along with medical models and specimens. I was left by myself in the basement until lunch. I remember being there, alone, seeing photographs of disfigured men and surrounded by wax casts of the same men and… it was a lot. It was more than 10 years ago but I remember very clearly how I got my ipod out to listen to Radiohead to keep me company and get me through the day.

I felt the same this week in another medical archive in Paris. I saw a photograph of a naked man with debilitated arms and legs and thought, oh, I’ve seen him before. I recognised him. Then I saw, in the back of the photograph, a newspaper clipping informing of the death of the patient, who had died by suicide. Apparently, in his letter, he said that he was disgusted at a life that had only given him ugly things when he loved beautiful things, but wanted anyway to donate his body to science, in case it was useful. I was not prepared for this. It took me a while to recover, and again, I found myself in the patio, during the lunch break, listening to music to get me through the day.

I don’t know if it’s the intensity of a two-weeks research trip, that produces an accumulative effect, but I’m finding this trip very hard. Every day I see terrible things: forensic photographs of abortions, babies born with syphilis, men and woman exposing their genitals to the camera, in pain.

And I cannot put a historical distance between me and the material. I find myself saying sorry to these patients, hoping they were treated and healed, asking them if they’re ok. I’ve never done that before, and I don’t know why I’m doing it now. It’s not a conscious decision: the photographs are doing this to me.

The truth is, I don’t want to put a historical distance anymore. I could write about these photographs in an academic way. I know what to say about them in relation to the history of photography and to the history of medicine. But I don’t think that’s the whole story any more.

My dear friend Leticia Fernandez Fontecha, a poet and historian of medicine, told me that I’m having this reaction because this year I’m giving myself the time and space to breath. I’m listening to myself instead of listening to what I’m supposed to do. I’m letting myself go. And I think there’s some element about that. My experience in the archive challenges my academic discourse. I know better than to infer that a particular expression meant that the person was in pain. Yet, that’s my raw reaction to these images. And for the first time in my life, I’m fine with this. I’m not going to discard my direct experience just because it doesn’t match with my academic discourse. At the contrary, I will think harder to accommodate the theory to my experience, because there is something that I don’t understand and I want to understand.

Talking about this, my amazing colleague Kelley Wilder said that good research is the research that changes you. Well, this research is changing me. Suddenly, I see the real value in researching medical photography beyond my intellectual curiosity. But articulating that value involves grappling with my own emotions and what we owe to these men, women, and children. I do believe we can ‘make them justice’, in a way, by using these images and writing about them. I need to find a way to write this history. I cannot write an objective, dispassionate, detached history. I cannot, and I don’t want to.

On breaks

Being an immigrant is sometimes hard, but it also has its perks. On holidays, I get to jump on a plane and go home, where the sun, my family and my friends will welcome me. I really like going home on holidays not just because of the people I miss during the year and get to see now. It’s that it feels like real holidays, even when it’s just for a weekend.


Madrid is just beautiful, isn’t it?

Here, I disconnect. Even if I do a bit of work here and there, I’m in a completely different mindset. Before Christmas, I was really, really focused on work. Many (good) things have happened since September, and I would catch myself listing them, remembering everything and planning what’s next. It was out of pure excitement and joy rather than anxiety, but still. I was talking about it all with my friends, too -because I wanted to celebrate!

And then I came here, and actually nobody care? I mean, my family and my friends are the most supporting people and they value what I do, they really do. But when we’re catching up, grants and publications are not hot topics. They want to know that I’m happy (and I am!), and I want to know about their lives -not their work achievements. Suddenly, all the things that seemed so important just a couple of weeks ago are in the back of my mind.

So, it’s been really nice silencing the part of the brain that thinks about academia, and just go with the flow of food and sleep. It’s Sunday evening and I still have one more week on leave, so I probably should stop here before I jinx it.

Happy 2019!!!


I have a first draft!

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time.

First of all, because it means that I’ve finished writing the first draft of my first book (bar the conclusions, ok).


My draft!!

Secondly, because there have been many, many, MANY instances in which I really doubted that I would get this done.

I know that writing a book is difficult, and that turning your PhD into a book is a particular kind of nightmare. That’s fine, I never thought it would be easy. But writing this book has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, way harder than the PhD or anything else. So I want to tell the story of how I’ve written this book in the past years, the struggles, and how I’ve eventually managed to write the manuscript.

This book was never meant to be. By the time I finished my PhD, I was ready to move on. I wanted to come back to the history of science/medicine, and I wrote a postdoc project that had absolutely nothing to do with my thesis. I wasn’t interested in the topic of my PhD anymore and was very excited about the new stuff. Also, I did my PhD in a very toxic environment that absolutely destroyed my academic self-confidence. So, when I arrived to Leicester and started working on my new project surrounded by amazing people, the last thing I wanted was to come back to a topic that didn’t excite me anymore and made me feel super insecure, inadequate and not good enough.

But then I met a series editor in a conference, and casually suggested me to send a proposal. Everyone told me that I would regret it one day if I didn’t publish my PhD, and everyone was on Twitter saying that a monograph was a requirement for a job. So I sent the proposal and a chapter to the press, and, obviously, it didn’t work. The readers’ reports were brutal (I’m not exaggerating: one of my colleagues has used parts of these reports in a doctoral training seminar to show how brutal reviews can get). Somehow, I pulled myself together and sent a response. The editors invited me to resubmit the material.

This was probably the best thing that could happen to the book, but not necessarily the best thing for me.

At some point, I realised that every time I came back to work on the book, the same conversation ran in my head:

“What am I doing?”

“Why am I writing this book?”

“I shouldn’t be writing this book/ Someone else should be writing this book/ I’m not good enough for this/ I don’t know enough to write this book”

“Does this book even need to exist?”

Every. Single. Time.

It was exhausting and demoralising. I didn’t want to write this book and it was giving me all sorts of bad feelings and anxiety every time I worked on it, while I was feeling perfectly fine working on the new stuff. So I seriously considered not doing it.

Eventually, I decided to go ahead. I tried (or rather, I try) to shut up the negative thoughts reminding myself that I had been through them before and I had decided that yes, the book was a valuable contribution and yes, I was the person to write it.

A year after the first proposal, I submitted a new proposal, introduction and sample chapter. This time, I made sure that one of my colleagues, who has published with the same press and is a cultural historian, read it. He loved it so I thought it would be fine. I was also actually happy with what I had written, as I had found a way to make the stuff interesting to me again.

The reports came back, and they were not that terrible. Not overtly positive, mind you (one said that it as a “unfulfilled promise” or something like that). I had another book crisis. I’m a photo historian, trying to write a book for a cultural history series. Maybe I was aiming at the wrong press? Was this the sign to stop? Did I really want to complicate my life like this, or should I just try to publish it in a photo history series? Fortunately, I had a phone conversation with the editor, who encouraged me to write a response to the reports and told me that, actually, the reports were not bad.

Okay, I wrote the response. I was very positive, I thought this was the time!

Well. Kind of.

They were happy with the response and wanted to see the full manuscript.



They didn’t mention the contract. So, basically, I had to write a book that felt like f*cking agony every time I approached it without a guarantee that it would be accepted.

Just to be clear, I’m NOT complaining about the press. They’ve been amazing and absolutely supportive throughout the years, and they’re the reason why I’ve persevered. I totally understand that they want to see the full manuscript first.

But writing chapters for a book *I think* will be published, but maybe not, hasn’t been easy. The feelings of inadequacy and not-good-enough are still there, obviously, specially as it seems that everyone else are getting book contracts (so glad for all of you, really!), and the monograph is still valued as key for an entry-level job, and I have the job but not the monograph I was supposed to have at this stage so…

But I’ve done it. I have a draft of all the chapters and the introduction. I still have a lot of work to do, but still I can’t believe I have a full draft. I thought so many times about quitting. I honestly couldn’t really picture me finishing the book. And here I am!

There’s no moral to this story. There’s not even an end, because I still have to submit it and we’ll see what the reviewers think of it. But I wanted to share it because we always see the shiny finished products but not the struggles behind. So here’s mine.


“Reading Photography in French 19thC Journals” is out now!

I have just published “Reading Photography in French Nineteenth-Century Journals” in Media History, Open Access thanks to the Wellcome Trust!

This article explores how photographs published in the French medical and, to some extent, the popular press helped readers to interpret expressions and gestures as signs of emotional states, morbid conditions and physiological and psychological processes. The first two sections examine the use of photography to visualise normal and pathological bodies through measurements and experiments in the medical press, particularly Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière, Archives de Neurologie and L’Année Psychologique. The next two sections study how the development of new photographic processes such as the magnesium flash and chronophotography created new conditions in which the body could be visually scrutinised in the medical press as well as popular journals such as Le Théâtre and the general scientific journal La Nature. This analys results in two main findings: 1) medical journals used photography to assert their own disciplinary identities, and 2) photography acted as a potential bridge between audiences, as some medical and popular journals shared the same beliefs regarding photography’s ability to represent the human body, but approached photographic innovations from different, albeit complementary, ways.



Photography and the Making of Modern Medicine in France (1860-1914)

I am thrilled to announce that I have been awarded a British Academy/ Leverhulme Small Grant for my project “Photography and the Making of Modern Medicine in France (1860-1914)” (Ref: SRG18R1\181193)

PK 72259

Outdoors photographic laboratory, La Salpêtrière. Cinémathèque.

The purpose of this BA Small Grant is to support the archive research and dissemination of results for my monograph Photography and the Making of Modern Medicine in France (1860-1914). This book will explore the emergence and development of medical photography in France between 1860 and 1914. The second half of the long nineteenth century was a period of great change in France, which affected its social and political life as well as its sciences. The turn to experimental medicine led by Claude Bernard, the increasing specialisation of doctors in different branches of the medical sciences and the incorporation of new technological instruments turned this period into a key moment in the history of medicine. This book takes an innovative approach to these processes, retelling important episodes such as the birth of experimental psychology and the development of specialised medical journals from a photographic point of view. By examining images as well as photographic materials and discourses, this book situates photography at the centre of medical sciences. In particular, it argues that photographic practices contributed to the making of medical knowledge, the shaping of medical specialisms and the communication of scientific ideas. Unique in its scope and approach, this book demonstrates that photography played a fundamental role in the development of the medical field in France.

This project aims to make a critical intervention in medical history and medical humanities, offering new directions in the field. While most of the books and articles on medical photography tend to focus on singular institutions or collections of photographs, this project will be the first to carry out a systematic analysis of medical photographic practices in France, exploring the uses of photography in institutions (La Salpêtrière, Collège de France, Bicêtre, Saint Anne, Saint-Louis, Villejuif and Hôtel Dieu, among others), medical specialisms (mainly pathology, neurology, psychology, psychiatry, physiology and anatomy) and publications (manuscripts, textbooks and journals).


  1. To demonstrate the fundamental role that photography played in the shaping of the medical field in France between 1860 and 1914 through the analysis of its uses in institutions, medical specialisms and publications.
  2. To provide a model of analysis of photographic sources related to the history of medicine that suits the particular characteristics of medical records and is applicable to other medical corpuses.

I will update this blog with progress on this research. This is exciting!

On Photography & Wonder Woman

Ever since I watched Wonder Woman, I’ve wanted to blog about it.

I loved the film and its approach to photography, but until today I haven’t been able to articulate why. It was re-reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others that it struck me. In her famous book, Sontag writes:

“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” (p. 89)

Well, this is quite an statement for someone who wrote two books on photography. What does Sontag mean by “understand”? And by “photographs’?

She writes “photographs”, but she probably means “photographic images”. In that case, I agree with her. Photographic images do not provide much information regarding the event represented. We can’t understand an event by just looking at how it was captured by a camera for a very brief period of time, and later processed into a positive print. Fair enough.

But this is a very, very, VERY limited approach to photography. Photographs are not, or not only, photographic images. Photographs are visual objects, which (usually, often, definitely not always) display an image. Photographs are quite complex objects, and photography involves quite complex practices. Then, why should we reduce photographs to their unstable images? Photographic practices can make us understand.

Let’s take the example of Wonder Woman. I know, Wonder Woman is not a historically accurate film (if only…!). But the moments when photography features in the film are quite good representations of the daily presence of photography during the war and today. They perfectly show the kind of things we can actually understand through photography.

The film starts and ends with a photograph. Diane is doing work in the archives of the Musée du Louvre (as one does), and receives a briefcase with a glass plate. The black and white image shows her and her four friends. It is upon receiving the glass plate that Diane tells the story of how she basically saved the world. We don’t understand the First World War by looking at this image. Following Sontag, the image only works as a spark, inducing memories and a narrative through which the spectator can understand what happened.

But are talking about the image or about the photograph/glass plate?

Later in the film, we see the moment when the photograph was taken. After the first victory of the team, the photographer of the village takes the photo of the group. The film spends some time showing everything around the image: the camera, the group posing, the rest of the people of the village watching them. The scene is about doing photography, not about the particular image and what it can reveal. That this moment is integrated into the narrative (Diane’s own narrative) demonstrates that the image not only sparks the memory of the war, but also the memory of how the photograph was taken. The act of taking the photograph was important in itself. Through this scene, we can understand how and why sometimes we value photographs. The image is only the excuse to remember the moment when it was taken, and what that moment means to us.

My favorite scene was, however, towards the end. When the war is over (spoiler altert?), one monument is covered by photographs, typically of the dead. I cried so much at this point. This is a very poignant scene, but also a very informative one. Photographs helps us to understand rituals of collective and individual mourning. This scene shows how private photographs circulated through the public sphere, acquired new meanings (from being a personal portrait to become a symbol of heroism and patriotism) and became objects through which mourning war articulated.

Of course we can understand the world through photography, because photography makes our world. We just need to stop obsessing about what is in the image, to look at what we do with photographs -and what photographs do to us.



Medical Histories in Photography and Film

Clephan Building, De Montfort University

Tuesdays 4-6pm

Please check exact room numbers for each individual seminar below

Open to all – just turn up


January 10, 2017 (room CL 2.35)| Dr Katherine Rawling (Associate Fellow, CHM, University of Warwick)

Authority, Agency and Ambiguity: Doctor-Photographers and the 19th Century Medical Photo


February 7, 2017 (room CL 2.30)| Dr Lukas Engelmann (Research Associate, CRASSH, University of Cambridge)

Picturing the Unusual. Medical Photography as ‘Experimental System’


March 7, 2017 (room CL 2.29)| Dr Anna Toropova (Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, University of Nottingham)

Cinema and Medicine in Revolutionary Russia


In case of queries contact Dr Beatriz Pichel


First World War Photography

What makes First World War photography so special?

This question is haunting me as I (try to) write my book. I started researching this topic in 2008, basically because I didn’t know anything about it. By the end of the PhD I loved the topic, but shortly after I completely disengaged with it.

Four years after my viva, I’m taking a fresh look at the material, and this is what I’m finding.



Jay Winter said in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning that the scale of loss created the necessity of new languages. Survivors needed new ways to express, communicate and understand what was happening. Modernism can be understood as a reaction to the inability of traditional languages to express new ways of dying, mourning, etc.

Was photography affected by this necessity of new languages?

The First World War was not the first war to be photographed -we have plenty of war photographs before 1914. It was neither the first war fully ‘covered’ by photojournalists, as the Spanish Civil War was. But as many authors have argued, we can see both tradition and new, modern languages in its production. We can both find very traditional portraits, and images of body parts that later inspired surrealists like Andre Breton.

While the focus of scholarship has been on how photographic languages changed, I’m more interested in photographic practices. What did it mean to photograph the war? How did photographing the war affect the ways in which people take, preserve, share and pose for photographs?

And what can photographic practices tell us about First World War experiences?

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this period was the creation of military photographic services, which had the explicit purpose of documenting the war. It is very easy to understand this production as mere propaganda, and thus focusing on how images like the one I posted above propagated nationalistic values. However, if we look closely at services such as the French Section photographique de l’armée (SPA), we’ll see that it was not that simple.

First of all, because the military authorities soon realised that the same images were interpreted in opposite ways by different audiences. Where the French population saw reassuring images of soldiers having some rest in clean camps, the neutral countries saw a lazy army unable to counteract the technological and military superior German army. Therefore, the SPA put a lot of effort in controlling the physical distribution of images. If they could not control the meaning of images, then they would control the circumstances in which images were saw and understood. This is why the SPA not only distributed photographing prints, but also albums and postcards, and organised national and international exhibitions. Each of these items was designed for a particular audience: French population, kids, neutral countries, allies, etc.

Shifting the focus away from the images to the mechanisms of control and distribution of physical material leads to examining the material practices of photography. For instance, it shows that war photography became a business, as photographs were sold and bought. How was this market regulated? More importantly, which were the suppliers of the SPA? Can this history of the SPA reveal more about French war economy?

It also puts the archives into a new perspective. While only some of the photographs would circulate as propaganda, all the images would be preserved as part of the war archives. How was the ideology of these archives based on its material disposition? Who was working in the archives, making the (diverse) classifications? Where were the photographs stored, and how?

By asking these questions, I hope to demonstrate that photography became a tool to engage with the new conditions imposed by the war, not just because of the images, but also because of the practices it allowed to develop. Photography involved actions. Some were adaptations of old actions; some were completely new. But in all cases, the camera, the print, the album, the archive, allowed engaging  in a very material way with what has happening around.

Albert Samama-Chikli, fort de Vachereauville, Verdun, 1917

SPA photography Albert Samama-Chikli in Verdun




On Dancing and Writing

Sometimes (the good times) writing makes me feel high -SO high. I get so excited, I enjoy it so much that I can’t describe it with words.

Dancing provokes me very similar feelings. It’s the only thing that makes me feel that good. And I’ve just realised why.

I’ve never been very regular at dancing. I’ve tried many different styles in my life (contemporary/jazz, belly dance, even bollywood for a week) but only I’ve only committed to two dances: ballet and swing, and both during my adulthood.

Swing and ballet look like very, very different dances, and indeed they are. But they have something in common: connection. Swing dance is all about connecting with you partner. It’s a conversation, where partners act and react to each other.You can learn the steps, but there’s no way to do them if you don’t follow the pulse of your partner. Dancing as a follower, I basically follow instructions: my partner decides which move we’re going to do. But if the lead just moves you mechanically, without listening to what you might offer, it’s boring and plain and a waste of time. The best dances are when we both actively respond to each other’s moves, and we laugh and maybe make mistakes, but we’re both THERE. Connecting.

Ballet is not (at its basic level at least) a partner dance. But again, it’s all about connecting. I was doing ballet during the last months of my thesis, and the year when I was unemployed and without any prospects of finding a job in Spain. Dancing ballet connected me with my body. It gave me a sense of control in a time when I had no control at all about important aspects of my life like, you know, work. Focusing on my insteps, my legs, my stomach, my back, my chest, my neck, my head, my arms and my hands all at the same time gave me a sense of being there, of connecting with me.

Connection is the key to dance, but it is also the key to writing. Sometimes meetings, emails, forms, bibliographies and notes eat up all my time and I forget why I’m doing what I do. Too much to do and too little time to do it means that we often rush to finish things. As a consequence, I don’t enjoy them anymore. Writing becomes a boring, plain, mechanical dance with a non-listening partner.

So, now I’m trying to stop, breath, and connect with what I’m writing. Remember why I do it, why I’m passionate about that particular thing in particular, or about the implications of that specific bit of the research. Think about the actual people I’m writing about. When I get it, this connection with my writing almost feels like a physical sensation -an agitation in my chest.

I know this connection is not particular to dancing and writing, and other things like yoga, meditation or photography have the same effects in other people. But I had never thought about writing as dancing, and suddenly it all makes sense.