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.

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