?What is the matter
?where does it hurt
The quarantine conditions that we are all committed to over the past two months created and supported the content of the project I am currently working on. I'll start with the fact that I wasn’t free to go out and do my usual fieldwork: interview, get in touch with different people or take photos. I found myself burrowing in various image banks rather than interact with my surrounding.
Within those image banks I discovered over 5,000 ready-to-use photographs of women in expressions or various positions of hysteria (all of well made up beautiful models). This discovery raised the question: why there is such a high demand for images of women in situations of distress? That question was the starting point for my current project.
Throughout the project I am looking at the history of female hysteria, from the time it was a widely diagnosed illness in the 19th century to the present, where the term is no longer recognised as an illness due to the randomly wide variety of symptoms attributed to it. Today, different manifestations of hysteria are recognized in other conditions such as schizophrenia or anxiety attacks, but despite the refutation of the term, it is still used in everyday language. I observed the use of “female hysterical imagery” in publicity of pharmaceutical and insurance companies. Then my investigation went into French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s mainly photographic study of his patients. From 1862 he worked and taught at Salpêtrière Hospital for 33 years where he founded a Neurological Department and installed one of the first photo labs within a medical institution. Throughout the years he experimented on diagnosed female hysterics and developed his theories based on photographic research.
Literary sources show a close connection of Western culture’s history shaping female characters, bearing weakness, panic, fainting, uncontrollability and how all these factors shaped their sexual desire. These gender stereotypes are surprisingly still utilized by various advertising mechanisms and serving the industry up to this day.
One of my sources is French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman's work on hysteria, where he reviews the relationship between photography and psychiatry in the late 19th century, and in particular the importance of photography as a significant tool for creating knowledge. According to him, the type of hysteria invented at the Salpêtrière emerged from complex fantasies that staged dynamics between sexual desire, scientific knowledge and institutional power. These fantasies influenced the relationships between the male clinicians and their female patients. The use of photographic technology has been a platform for realizing these fancies. What is clear today is that hysteria is not a medical phenomenon but a cultural one, and in retrospect this view allows a new evaluation of the "disease"; the hysterical woman acting out on prohibitions of a patriarchal culture.