n De Arte - Patients, power and representation : clinical photographs in focus - research

Volume 54 Number 3
  • ISSN : 0004-3389
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Historically framed as a “violent” medium, photography poses a series of ethical questions about what it means to look at vulnerable individuals. Yet, when it comes to photographs of the clinically unwell, concerns as to patient consent, private vs public ownership, and institutional responsibility circle even more acutely. Such material speaks to what Jane Nicholas has called the “fundamental tension in historical practice”—to both study and safeguard, to both reveal and hide. The aim of this article is to unpack the ethics and politics of representation as prompted by a disused collection of surgical photographs generated during the 20th century by the University of Cape Town’s medical school. While attending to the power relations inherent to the photographic medium as well as the discursive terrain of medicine, my argument is that it is only in acknowledging both the vulnerability of the patients depicted as well as the artefactual value and redemptive possibilities of such images that the current and future life of difficult historical photographs can be debated. Thus, by highlighting the complex nature of this and other (clinical) collection(s), I seek to raise and grapple with the uncertainties that inherently trouble much archival photographic material today.

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