When she was nineteen, Izabela Jurcewicz was admitted to hospital after several weeks of debilitating pain. Tests revealed an inter-organ tumour in her abdomen, and the complex surgery required to remove it took over nine hours. Jurcewicz remained in hospital for over a month. Years later, the impact of such necessary but invasive treatment is still felt. Her body holds onto the memory of being cut open on the operating table. ‘The impact of this surgery is a living archive in my body’, Jurcewicz writes in her introduction to Body as a Negative: Sensations of Return, ‘a photographic negative that produces images’.
Izabela Jurcewicz’s body holds onto the memory of being cut open on the operating table. ‘The impact of this surgery is a living archive in my body’, she writes … ‘a photographic negative that produces images’.
By suggesting that her post-surgical body is like a photographic negative, the original from which copies are made, Jurcewicz reveals the focus of her first photobook. Throughout Body as a Negative the idea of ‘returning’ is used to work through the significant bodily trauma Jurcewicz sustained. The photobook unfolds across different chapters, each with an accompanying essay, as she revists her experience of illness across different points in time. Returning to her hospitalisation, to the process of recovery, to experiences that triggered the memory of the original trauma, photography becomes a way for Jurcewicz to consider her own physicality from a distance, after it has been altered.
It is the sense of ongoing attempt, rather than finality, that characterises this photobook. The layout utilises blank space. Mostly, single images sit next to an empty page. Surrounded by white, each photograph doesn’t demand attention so much as pose a question. Jurcewicz’s photographs are evocative rather than straightforward. There are images of medical objects, tangled copper wiring against surgical blue, a muddle of bandages on the floor. Elsewhere, objects from the natural world are used to make visual parallels with the body, a large conch shell with a cable fed through its inner lip, or spiky aloe vera plants held up against the scar that runs almost the entire length of Jurcewicz’s stomach.
For those of us lucky enough to have good health we rarely consider what’s happening inside of us. We assume that, if we just leave it be, the body will function as it is supposed to. An experience like Jurcewicz’s however, reveals how complicated the process of being in a body really is. Here is a thing within the body that causes it harm yet nonetheless has also been made by it. The body both as self and as something completely different, alien even. There’s a type of doubling that occurs, as a second body, a sick body, demands to be listened to, one that is at once in the possession of its owner and at odds with it.
In her staged photographs, Jurcewicz makes sustained use of props, including mirrors and glass. Surrounded by carnal pinks, a goldfish swims in an empty bowl. Butterflies are pinned between glass plates, highlighting both the medicalised ‘looked-at’ body and the type of stasis that illness necessitates. Jurcewicz’s self-portraits are often the largest in the book, printed across double page spreads. In one, Jurcewicz lies on an operating table, her body seen from different angles via the multiple mirrors positioned alongside her. With surgically-gloved hands, she holds one up to her face in order to look down at herself, completing the myriad of reflections. In another she is curled up, naked and child-like, next to a pile of syringes and scissors. On the wall above her, a butterfly in a glass bulb and an oval mirror. It’s a vulnerable portrait, but still Jurcewicz looks directly at the camera, meets its gaze.
Body as a Negative is deeply personal. Beyond this, however, are interesting questions about the messy and contradictory reality of living within a body. The things that are happening inside us that we barely register until we are forced to. It looks to the echoes that reverberate within that impact how we exist and move through the world. So too, does it make visual the act of trying to make sense of this existence.
Returning to a traumatic event cannot always be an active choice undertaken within a safe environment. Stressful situations can trigger a psychosomatic response, as memory of the original trauma returns to the body on both a psychological and cellular level. For Jurcewicz, it was her father’s cancer diagnosis in 2016 that initiated both this stress reaction, but also the return to her photographic practice as a type of therapeutic treatment. Two images of her father are included within the book. In others, Jurcewicz takes his place, using a pulley to sit up in bed, lying perfectly still with covers up to her neck. Sometimes, Jurcewicz suggests, it is through other bodies that we are made to confront our own. An argument for empathy as a means of self-understanding.
Like any project that touches on photo-therapy and reenactment as a means to heal, Body as a Negative is deeply personal. Beyond this, however, are interesting questions about the messy and contradictory reality of living within a body. The things that are happening inside us that we barely register until we are forced to. It looks to the echoes that reverberate within that impact how we exist and move through the world. So too, does it make visual the act of trying to make sense of this existence. And that’s really interesting too, to spend time with a photobook that is more concerned with the search for meaning as a process, than it is about closure. Jurcewicz’s conversation with her body remains ongoing.