Reviews Art

The Body at Risk: Photography of Disorder, Illness, and Healing

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 12 January 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:125
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne, medical journalist (TanneJH{at}
  1. New York

    Among the risks to the bodies that we see in this photographic exhibition are ageing, child labour, poverty, pollution, domestic violence, war, and infectious diseases such as polio and HIV/AIDS. The striking photographs show sadness and misery, but also some hope. Just taking the photograph and getting it published has helped bring about change. Life is much better now for many people compared with what is recorded in these pictures.

    Almost all the photographs here, taken by 16 noted photographers, are black and white, and there are two videos. Most show American subjects.

    The exhibition begins with century-old photographs of child labourers, taken by Lewis Wickes Hine, who worked for the National Child Labor Committee. This group sought to put an end to children working in glass and textile factories, coal mines, and slum apartments, where they helped other family members sewing garments or packaging nuts and dried fruits. Hine's photos show thin, stunted children with sooty faces and even one boy who lost a leg in an industrial incident.

    Embedded Image

    Untitled [Maude demonstrating with baby to class of midwives], 1951

    Credit: W EUGENE SMITH

    Most Americans know that child labour has mostly been eliminated in the United States, but they may never have heard of the Farm Security Administration's Health Initiatives during the “New Deal Administration” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. This programme aimed to improve the lives of rural people by a range of public health measures, which included providing 73 400 sanitary privies [outhouses] for farmers to prevent the transmission of hookworm, screens for windows and doors to keep out flies and mosquitoes, and pumps for clean well water. The programme also sent nurse-midwives and doctors into small communities, where they offered free annual check ups for children and administered immunisations.

    Embedded Image

    “I hate you! Never come back to my house,” screamed an 8 year old at his father as police arrested the man for attacking his wife, 1988


    Alas, the innovative health programme proved too controversial, expensive, and politically vulnerable and it was ended. Today Americans are still debating the merits of universal health care.

    Things had not changed much by 1951 when the famous photographer Eugene Smith shot a dramatic pictorial essay for Life magazine. Entitled “Nurse Midwife Maude Callen Eases Pain of Birth, Life and Death,” it starkly showed how this talented woman provided health care to about 10 000 mostly African-American people in a poor, rural South Carolina county. Two-thirds of the women in this area still gave birth at home, often by oil lamp. Callen often drove 3000 miles a month, set up improvised clinics in churches, and scrambled through forests draped with Spanish moss, a feathery hanging plant.

    The risks to the body from violence are apparent in photographs in the emergency room of Denver General Hospital by Eugene Richards, in Donna Ferrato's pictures of women beaten by their partners, and in Lori Grinker's harrowing colour photographs of soldiers who have survived horrific battlefield injuries. In eloquent captions, the soldiers tell what war has meant to their lives in both physical and mental injuries.

    Aging in America by Ed Kashi, which also includes a video, offers photos of dramatically wrinkled faces. Kashi's subjects include serious senior athletes—including one who has fulfilled his lifelong dream of travelling with and performing in a rodeo—elderly people who are managing to stay in their homes thanks to care from the families or health workers, some lively delegates to a political convention (older Americans are among the most politically active, the caption notes), and the wedding of a couple who met in their 80s and celebrated with what is clearly a grand party for more than 200 guests.


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