Firstly, before I go on, I'd better warn you: this is not for the feint-hearted. I've been cautious in what I've shown here, it's grim in parts. In fact women, in particular, may well find this very uncomfortable; those that I've shown the book to have not liked it. But at the same time, the story behind this book, the story that the book tells, is such a powerful and intensely personal one for the photographer/artist, Sonya Whitefield, that I found it amazing and moving, not least because of Whitefield's candor. And the book itself is a beautiful piece of work. A fitting, superbly thought through, record.
A very brief synopsis on the book's accompanying website explains:
This unique book creatively interprets one woman’s journey through a hysterectomy. It challenges conventional perception and asks questions as to how, with imagination and creativity, a woman can take some personal control over this often traumatic medical procedure on the feminine body and psyche.
With the prospect of a traumatic and invasive procedure ahead Whitefield, it seems to me, did what came naturally to an artist: She seized the opportunity to turn a deeply disturbing experience into something much more positive and expressive. So she recorded the whole thing: from admission to hospital, through the preparatory stage, the post-operative recovery and on through a shocking turn of events, to an end where the patient, uncharacteristically, takes control of the outcome.
I don't know the artist, I only have the book and a little background from a friend, but I guess the impression that it leaves is important. I can only guess at quite how distressing the procedure must be to go through. Well actually, even my best guess can't possibly come close. But I think I can appreciate the need to humanise the experience (as poet and art critic Cherry Smyth puts it in a review).
The book was designed at Fishbone, one of Belfast's best, although perhaps not necessarily the best known, design studios (it was actually designed by Al, their senior designer). I've known Sam, who runs Fishbone, for a few years now; I still have a vivid memory of going into their amazing studio for the first time and being totally blown away by the sheer quality of work. Helped partly by a lack of foreknowledge (they don't have a website, so no point looking for one), I had no idea what they did.
In some ways the book isn't untypical of their work. But the intensity of the subject matter and Al's outstanding attention to detail has made it very special. For example, the red cloth cover is embossed with what at first glance appears to be fairly abstract shapes. The first photo in the book reveals what those shapes actually are: blood stains on bed sheets, hence the red cover. The patterns on the, apparently, traditional end-papers, you later discover, are actually taken from the miniature casket that the Lab technicians used to deliver Whitefield's requested, removed tissue (this was the shocking turn of events referred to earlier, although the more I think about this, the more I understand how it makes sense).
The photography is grim and sombre. It's also occasionally explicit, mysterious, vaguely comical and even tender at other times. It's powerful stuff: horrific and beautiful. The book is dedicated to Whitefield's two sons and it's the dedication at the front that, I think, explains best why someone might feel the need to venerate such a potentially unsettling episode:
This book is dedicated to my children…who were carried and nurtured in my womb and who unknowingly inspired me to ask for it back. The thought of it being dumped in a hospital incinerator would just not honour the gift of their lives…
I understand the actual exhibition has, rightly, gone down well and Whitefield has been invited to take it oversees.