Jason Bate is Lecturer in the School of Art and Design at Falmouth University. His PhD was on photography, disfiguration and reconstructive surgery in England during and after the First World War, and he has since published articles in History and Technology and Visual Culture in Britain.
Disrupting Our Sense of the Past: Medical Photographs that Push Interpreters to the Limits of Historical Analysis
This paper explores photographs of facial plastic surgery cases from the First World War. Drawing on the assumption that a photograph’s meaning comes from its use and the context in which we view it, and emerging from the archive experience and the affect that this encounter has on me as a viewer, I examine how the photographs elicit readings, affect my historical imagination, and shape their content for me as a viewer. The paper begins with a definition of Foucault’s concept of medical discourse as a means of putting the photographs into their historical context. Nevertheless, reading the photographs through medical discourse only takes us so far in understanding what they mean today. These photographs raise difficult questions about their function within, and potentially, across historical discourses. The surgical images are historical photographs, meaningful within the kinds of discursive frameworks Foucault proposed. And yet they can affect me—and not only me—in a way that seems to cut across time and cultural convention, that generates a spark of recognition, a connection—however brief—that cannot be discursively contained. The surgical photographs complicate, or even undermine, my own understanding of history. From one point of view, they are important historical documents, but from another they function in a completely different way.
Keywords: photography; World War I; veterans; hospitals; surgery; empathy; emotion
Appearing in Approaches to Facial Difference: Past and Present (Bloomsbury: 2018). While you wait, check out other World War I material on our blog.