Body, Event, Life Writing, Medical Humanities, News, Self-portrait without Breasts

Sitting with Laura’s images in the Forum

IMG_1180The morning after the Self-portrait without Breasts event at Exeter University, I spent a couple of hours sitting in the Forum, a little distance from the exhibition of Laura’s photos.

I really wanted to study the images up close, admire the quality of Laura’s work, the quality of the prints (which is superb) but I couldn’t bring myself to do this, in case people spotted me staring at images of myself, so I sat at a distance, feeling odd, wishing I had a disguise so that I could go and look closely! Madness.

First I just sat and looked, getting used to the idea of twelve large photos of my body (some taken before surgery, some after) being on public display. This may sound strange, because some of the images have been on the web for a while and some I show digitally when I read the poems, but printed images have another purpose, different effects. They are discovered as physical objects, not virtual impressions. They are there as a group, an entity, arranged in a certain way to tell a story.

IMG_1186Most people walked straight past, appearing not to notice the images – focusing instead on a lecture or an essay deadline or a much-needed cup of coffee. Others stopped, walked between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ photos, and seemed to need to make sense of the transition. Others searched for the poster with text giving background information about the show, read the text, then looked at the pictures. (Although I think we look with more imagination if we haven’t read about images first, I do tend to do this myself at exhibitions, so I understood their search for context.)

Of the people who stopped and looked for any length of time, more were men than women. Some young men looked quite forensically at the ‘after’ pictures. Perhaps this was because what they saw was quite new to them. Perhaps too it was less directly painful for men to look – they would not be identifying so closely with what they saw.


One interesting thing about the exhibition of Laura’s photographs being in the Forum was that as chance would have it, it was Safer Sex Ball Campaign Week, so there were displays and stands with information about HIV and Chlamydia and domestic and sexual violence and safer sex. And then there were Laura’s photos of my body.

By my reckoning, during the two hours I sat in the Forum at least a hundred people walked past the images, and if only half of those saw any of them, that’s still fifty more people who in that time had seen a flat post-mastectomy chest with simple scars. Fifty people who might be less scared of that idea, who might see it as one valid choice amongst many. And that is just one aspect of what the exhibition might do.


The exhibition is going to be at the Forum until January, but is now on the mezzanine level, I believe.

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