Centre for Health, Technologies and Social Practice

Conference review ‘Visual Culture in Medical Humanities’, 18th June Durham University

On Thursday 18th June I attended the conference ‘Visual Culture in Medical Humanities’, a one-day workshop co-hosted by the Centre for Medical Humanities and the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture at Durham University, exploring connections and collaborations between these two fields.

The event began with a panel discussion about visual culture, with panellists including Susan Biernoff, Matthew Eddy, Janet Stewart and Ian Williams. Susan Biernoff’s talk presented a cultural history of images of disfigurement, while Matthew Eddy examined the practices of patients and medical students as graphic culture – copying, drawing, note- taking, tracing, diagramming, and scribbling. Ian Williams – a physician / comic book artist – discussed how comics and graphic novels deal with themes of health and disease, and can hold potential for giving a voice to marginalized groups, and challenging stigma.

Photo Credit: davidgrinnell via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: davidgrinnell via Compfight cc

Abjection and stigma were significant themes throughout the day, as presentations highlighted responses to, and lived experiences of, abjection. Ian Williams located his work within the ‘aesthetics of the abject’ – making ‘something shameful and stigmatising beautiful’ (for instance in his autobiographical work on OCD). During the last panel ‘visual therapeutics’, Jac Saorsa described her work as the ‘abject artist’, taking an auto-ethnographic stance in her projects on women’s experiences of cancer and obstetric fistula.

Another key theme of this panel – and the day in general – was participatory methodologies. Artist Deborah Padfield’s research sought to capture the subjective experience of pain through the co-creation of photographic images with patients, producing powerful, vivid images of the embodied lived experience of chronic pain. These images have since been taken up as a communication tool in clinical practice, seeking to improve dialogue and patient centred care. Maggie O’Neill’s presentation ‘Participatory biographies: walking, sensing, belonging’ discussed her innovative use of walking as a phenomenological and biographical method, foregrounding the narratives of migrant women, alongside collaborative visual methods of mapping, filming and photography.

All in all this event was thoroughly enjoyable and left me with lots of ideas regarding creative methodologies, as well as a better understanding of visual culture, and how art can illuminate medical practice and lived experiences of illness.


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