Mapping difference

I am an advocate for Body Freedom; the idea that the human body is natural, normal, and good, and therefore need not be kept hidden from view in public spaces, that there are benefits to be derived from not doing so, and that all bodies are beautiful. In San Francisco, body freedom was set back with the passage of 2013’s nudity ban, which requires the coverage of the genitalia. The Body Freedom advocates, the ban, and subsequent protests have garnered international press. This past Sunday, photographers from New York Magazine were in San Francisco to shoot some Body Freedom Activists for an article on the ways in which San Francisco might be losing its liberal values. An email was distributed by one of the Body Freedom activists which stated, “ don't want to see nudist who are heavy. They are cool with a little bit of chubbiness and they are cool with people of all ages but they don't want to photograph people who are heavy. Please don't take this personally, it's just our shallow culture where superficial things sell.”

How we accept diversity in bodies and define what is acceptable can be mapped visually by viewing photography of people and bodies through time. Even more telling, however, is seeking to understand the ways in which photographs of bodies deemed unique, deformed or disabled were used, interpreted and exhibited in the time in which they were produced. Photographs originally produced as research material for the United State’s Army Medical Museum during the Civil War intended to document the types of diseases and injuries a doctor would be confronted with on the battlefield. By 1867, however, they were housed in Ford’s Theater for public viewing. These photographs, including ones showing soldiers holding strings which traverse the holes in their bodies left by bullet wounds and naked amputees sitting or standing next to their amputated limbs would continuously travel the United States on touring exhibitions after the war, appearing in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition as part of a celebration of national identity. Although photographs of naked soldiers with exposed genitals were artfully covered by fig leaves by this time, their eyes and faces remained uncovered, revealing them as portraits rather than specimens.

Nineteenth-century exhibitions were not limited to examples of medical specimens from the Civil War. The exhibition of actual people with real and alleged physical anomalies was wildly popular in circus, museum, carnival, world fair and amusement park side-shows. Along with these exhibits flourished a highly profitable business in marketing photographic images of these people displayed as “freaks,” people without arms or legs, dwarfs, unusually large individuals (obese as well as tall), conjoined twins, and others with physical differences which would be classified as disabilities today. These were studio portraits, taken by professional photographers in their studios with painted backdrops, props and appropriate costuming. In Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric, Robert Bogdan suggests these photographic studies fell into two distinct categories: the aggrandizing mode and the exotic mode. In the aggrandizing mode, according to Bogdan, the freak was pictured as an upstanding, even exceptional person with a highly regarded social status. Attributes such as social position, achievements, talents, taste, intelligence were fabricated, elevated, or exaggerated. Bogdan explains that the exotic mode took the opposite tack, pinpointing the exhibit’s strangeness and alleged foreign backgrounds. Developmentally disabled persons were often directed as exotic “Aztecs” or “Africans.”

While the intent of the Civil War medical images was to document, inform, and then commemorate; because their purpose is to reveal that which is normally hidden from view, one cannot help but feel the voyeur when viewing them, seeing what would normally be most private presented in such a straight-forward manner. This effect is heightened by the age of the photographs, as one is accustomed to seeing Victorian portraiture with all of its attendant coverings which tended to give the body almost an upholstered look. This is similar to the feeling encountered by the public when confronted with a naked Body Freedom activist, or nudist, in a public setting; that vertiginous feeling of viewing something which is recognized as having been heretofore forbidden but with which one is now confronted and expected to know how to properly re/act. It is the same effect I remember experiencing the first time I was confronted with seeing a woman with a mastectomy at a nudist event, or indeed, my first encounter as an adult gay man accustomed only to the sight of other naked men with nudist women at a mainstream event. The photograph does allow the relatively safety of contemplation of the static image, however, without fear of the discomfort to which a live encounter might lead to.

While the soldiers in these medical photographs had no agency in their display, the freaks encountered in the side-show memorabilia presumably had more. Although we are tempted to view them as victims of capitalist hucksters, and surely some must have been, we must also remember that for many the occupation of freak allowed them to earn a living on their own terms. As Bogdan states, the human exhibits shown “were better off financially than the people who purchased their pictures.” The medical photography and the side-show freak are evidence of the nineteenth-century’s obsession to catalogue, categorize, and pathologize.

Freaks are shown as the antithesis of normality, yet on some level we recognize that their abnormality is a construct, a shifting line between and “us” and “them” paradigm. Looking at these photographs allows us to see the shifting lines of normality through time. As the boundaries and definitions of normality have changed over time, the value placed on being normal has also shifted depending on the cultural climate. Today we seem to possess a compulsion to absorb the abnormal and freak within the everyday until it becomes banal. The exclusion of certain body types in photojournalism about the loss of “liberal values” is but one example. There must be a better way to accommodate difference without explaining it away as a product of our imagination and incorporating it into the commonplace.

4 thoughts on “Mapping difference”

  1. We can go back thousands of years to when we were told not to kill others; steal from the others; lie to or about others; or sexually take from others.
    A little more recently we were told more concisely to love all others as we love ourselves. It seems nobody will pay attention including those entrusted with telling the Gospel.

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