The surreal terror of being shrunk or expanding beyond one’s normal size that Alice undergoes down the rabbit hole goes some way to describing Sonya Whitefield’s experience of an early hysterectomy. For her, it is likened to being put beyond the self she knows, to a place where she’ll not know what she’ll feel: about her body, her intimate relationships, her sense of female identity. Many women feel that they are, in poet Anne Sexton’s words, ‘in the womb all along’ (2) since the womb makes its presence known once a month for much of our lives and we have to handle the regular, close proximity of blood, avoiding and getting pregnant and giving birth. Our word ‘blessing’ actually derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bloesed, which meant ‘bleeding’ and signalled fertility and good health for the woman and her family. As Sartre once said, we both have and are our bodies, so what happens when an organ that is identified with so much of our sense of self is removed?
In Whitefield’s brave and bold series, she follows in the venerable and vulnerable footsteps of artists like Jo Spence, Helen Chadwick and Hannah Wilke, who charted their bodies’ visceral experiences through photographs. Using the form of a visual diary, Whitefield leads us (and herself) through the tentative steps of the admission to hospital, the pre-op prep and the results. We all know those blotched sheets of the first stark image – at first we assume it’s menstrual blood, but then realise it must signal another kind of bleeding.
The confused fear of how intimacy will alter after the loss of her womb is conveyed in several images – in one, a man and a woman’s bare legs touch in bed, the man’s hand resting on the woman’s thigh suggesting their sexual hesitancy. Or the very affecting image of the woman/the artist’s pale feet and the hem of her flowered nightgown on the hospital bedspread – isn’t it funny how non-intimate these institutional fabrics can feel? – with the man’s ruddy, worked hand, empty and helpless by her side. The image details the strain on the carer, and the juxtapositioning makes it seem like they are made of different stuff, almost from different species, not merely genders. It’s a powerful image that asks if men can ever understand this kind of great loss.
The utilitarianism of the hospital environment is perfectly and succinctly evoked in the image of the ‘fasting’ sign with its foreboding red letters and the labelled angle-poise lamp, the bare walls. The ugliness of the white shower cubicle is brilliantly offset by the deep red towel or blanket, draped on the bath chair. The towel becomes the frightened body, the thing of living colour in this sterile, monochrome. It seems to scream out the missing protagonist’s fear of profuse bleeding, of experiencing what is safely inside being pulled outwards. Whitefield strikes a careful balance: these images are poetic yet never stray towards the maudlin or self-pitying. Despite their quietude, there is a feisty determination to be present in each of them, with her whole self. To keep bringing out her camera during this procedure must have taken guts.
The isolation and alienation of being hospitalised are portrayed through the furnishings and fittings in several shots, emphasising the unfamiliarity and fear of giving up control. Vulnerability is explored in delicate ways – through clothing, through the presence of her partner’s hand, and medical instruments such as the drip and the discarded steel staples.
The pre-surgical ‘Alice in Wonderland’ white tights made the artist laugh out loud when she saw them. They are unequivocally branded, as she is, for the next stage of the procedure and indeed her life. She uses the odd perspective of her legs from her point of view to express and heighten the otherworldliness of the situation and the garment.
Everyone knows the abject terror of being wheeled down towards the operating theatre and the garish overhead fluorescent gives this effect. That these images trace live moments in Whitefield’s experience makes them especially moving. There is no second take and yet the images never have the flippancy of some snap shots.
The powerfully raw post-op images recall the beautifully blunt post-birth series by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. The self-portrait with bandaged wound counters the vague hilarity of the earlier Alice in Wonderland tights. Here the legs are shortened (infantilised?), naked, tense and the bloodstain is now a sad and tender echo of what we mistook for menstrual blood in the first image. Next, the partner is holding her hand, the white blanket echoing a baby blanket and unconsciously emphasising the loss of what the Vietnamese call ‘the palace of the child’ or what Sexton calls ‘the central creature’ in her poem ‘In Celebration of My Uterus’ (3).
A later self-portrait shows the puckered scar stapling the belly, giving the artist agency over her wound, presenting it to herself as an image, as a reward and consolation, enabling her recovery and acceptance. She is more than in the womb all along. It brings to mind a photo of a scar by Phil Collins who also explores people in states of emotional extremity.
The scar without the staples is probably Whitefield’s most abstract image. Here the skin is canvas and the red line, a painted horizontal mark, dotted with red dots on each side. The body is taken in section, held as if in a frame as a way to see it almost in another genre. Like the tissue of the taken womb, this tissue too is already changing.
The final sequence of images creates a ceremony for the ‘dead’ womb in a child-sized, white coffin. Its return to the bed where the series started is very poignant. Here, the womb is once again central, honoured, and let go through a ritual burning. Whitefield uses both the fire and the photographs of the fire to process and close this significant and painful rite of passage.
This is a skilful, resonant documentation of a woman’s determination to humanise and feminise the dehumanising and de-feminising experience of having a hysterectomy. It is a stunning, affecting, unforgettable piece of work that deserves to be seen widely not just be girls and women, but by the men who care for them and also came from that intimate source.
- Anne Sexton, from ‘Menstruation at Forty’, from ‘Live or Die’, 1966
- Anne Sexton, from ‘In Celebration of my Uterus’, from ‘Love Poems’, 1967
- Cherry Smyth is a poet and visual arts critic. See www.cherrysmyth.com