Medical Photography: Opportunities and Challenges

There is something irresistible, especially when internet connectivity and social media make it so easy, about the temptation to share research findings that appear sensational, explicit, or shocking. Arguably, the core of a solid historical case study is a story, object or image that draws in an audience, and is perhaps an exaggerated example of a broader theme, providing an accessible single anchor to the debate.

A good example of this is Jonathan Hogg’s essay “‘The Family that Feared Tomorrow’: British Nuclear Culture and Individual Experience in the late 1950s.” Hogg uses a sensational story from the Daily Mirror in 1957 (with the headline “The Family that Feared Tomorrow”) in which a family carry out a suicide pact, allegedly out of fear of imminent horrific death in nuclear conflict. The article uses this extreme story to tease out subtler shifts in cultural attitudes during the Cold War period, the tragic family suicide lurks behind the argument, and is probably the reason I remember it now – five years after first hearing about the research.

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I have just come from a brilliant workshop convened by Stephen Kenny, in which we discussed some problematic archival sources he is working with for his upcoming book on race and medicine in the USA. Given the subject of race and medicine, the primary source material is often upsetting and difficult to process, and careful consideration must be made about deploying it sensitively in historical research. This afternoon we worked with extremely graphic images of African-American patients from the collection of a Southern doctor with an interest in racial medicine, the names and personal details of the individuals in the photographs are lost.

The images make uncomfortable viewing, yet Stephen observed on his trip to New Orleans the presence of a public exhibit of extreme medical conditions. Evidently, there is a spectrum of what is considered acceptable by different audiences; our discussion evolved into considering the best ways of making academic use of the images without them becoming bait for visual thrill-seekers, either in the form of backroom exhibits or plush coffee-table art books. Of course the most effective studies, such as Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness, manage to incorporate attention-catching material into nuanced intellectual arguments, photographs complimenting, rather than ornamenting, the research.

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When working on colonial medicine for my MSc last year I encountered the brilliant work of Larissa Heinrich The Afterlife of Images, in which the visual history of disease in China is explored. Heinrich revisits early paintings of medical conditions, and assesses their impact on American medical missionaries who were influenced by the images to the extent that their composition was later echoed in medical photographs. The Chinese paintings illustrate the holistic nature of disease, often situating the patient in the landscape or at work, to better convey the social and practical implications of their condition.

The book is a sensitive and often beautiful study of how images are never objective, and instead reveal a complex interaction between artist and sitter that is always at risk of becoming exploitative.

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