In Their Own Voice

For the last ten years, I have been collecting archival – mostly scientific – images in old books and archives. I’m particularly interested in the history of medicine and pictures of patients. What happens to these photographs when they are removed from their original context? Do they still portray knowledge or something else?

For me, photographs often seem mute, as if needing words by their side. Faced with a photograph a viewer asks: What is this a picture of? Where does it come from? The need for an explanation feels particularly strong when looking at an archival image: you want to place it somewhere, to give it a context. By removing the captions from the archival photographs, I place them in a new situation – I give the images a chance to speak for themselves, with a voice of their own.

In this project, I use photographs borrowed from medical books dating to the early 20th century. When I look at pictures of patients, I identify myself with the subjects, thinking how they must have felt while being photographed. The scientific gaze is very different from any other. It attempts to de-personalize its subjects, turning their bodies into anonymous objects of observation.

In many aspects, the bodily experience is present in my work. I believe it comes from my own experience, since my body, too, has been photographed for medical purposes. As I was standing naked in front of the camera, I felt myself disappearing. Even though the doctor was photographing my body meticulously, it felt as if she was looking right through me – as if I wasn’t there.

The images in this series are printed on transparent acrylic glass, which makes the portrayed figures translucent, almost weightless. Placed on wooden shelves facing the wall, the transparent material enables the figures to be formed through chiaroscuro as three-dimensional reflections on the walls. These soft shadows are bound to the movement of the viewer. In some of the works, the glass plates are placed on a pedestal or on the floor, facing each other. When the viewer walks around these sculptural pieces, the image changes constantly depending on the viewpoint of the observer.

With the help of archival imagery, this series continues my research into the perception of femininity.

– Milja Laurila