Photography as an artistic medium has always involved the inscription of light onto a form of physical form to create images. From the silver halide crystals on photographic film to the photosensitive semiconductors in digital sensors, photography serves as physical evidence of the world around us. As physical evidence of a phenomenon, a similar parallel exists on a cellular level on the human body after a period of intense medical procedures, leaving the body as a photographic negative of a prolonged surgery that leaves behind residual signs of physical stress.
In Izabela Jurcewicz’s Body as a Negative, she uses this relation between inscription of light in photography and cellular memory as a therapeutic method of reflection and recovery from a rare medical condition that she had, as well as a way to empathise with her father’s own illness. Currently lecturing at the University of Arts in Poznan, the photographer experienced extensive internal bleeding from a rare inter-organ tumour on new year’s eve that was unprecedented in her native Poland when she was just 19. “I learned that mine was one of 300 cases worldwide and science had few answers to its cause and how to proceed,” she tells It’s Nice That. “This experience of a patient being ‘on view,’ researched and scanned, coined my relationship with the camera and ways of seeing a human body.”
Her first surgery lasted nine hours, and the duration of this procedure changed her body at a cellular level. “The impact of this surgery exists as a living archive in my body, a photographic negative that produces images,” she says. “Deep somatic memory is called to visibility in my work, externalised through the photographic surface.” In dealing with the emotions that she felt during the procedure, she shot the series in a studio stage that recreated the hospital room. The camera enabled her to take on a dual role in this process: as an analytical surgeon examining her own body, and as a patient “reflection upon the feelings catalysed in the body.” In re-performing this first surgery, she photographed herself in this situation for a week, until she was emptied of the residual emotions and felt like she could move on to something else.
But the project also has another dimension beyond this self-reflective and therapeutic moment. Her father was diagnosed with fourth-stage metastatic cancer in Poland while she was in New York City. Already feeling a deep empathy due to the similarity to her own experiences, she “didn’t want to be an outsider to his illness.” Physically placing herself in her father’s positions, she photographed herself as him, wearing his medical stockings in his medical bed, ultimately forcing her to confront his physical limits.
“From one of my therapists, I learned that sources of pain and anxiety are held in unseen layers of the subconscious mind,” she says. “Whenever I am in a stressful situation, these traumatic memories open up in the cells as if I were again fighting for my life on the surgical table.” Photography, however, has allowed her to re-attune herself with her body, of how it is a “repository of emotion and of ease and freedom.” Beyond the recreations, the images she creates – metaphoric close-ups of vessels, fish, shells, specimens, glass – “become stand-ins to express the emotional states and visions” that was imprinted upon her.
“Two words can be used to describe time: ‘chronos’, the chronological or sequential time, and ‘kairos’, the proper, opportune time for action,” she says. The former being quantitative, and the latter qualitative, Izabel says that she entered into a non-linear sense of time during this process. “Kairos is believed to be a soul or self-nourishing time. In kairos, there is only the present moment. To achieve it, we must let go of everything else.”