Photography Is Traumatic: Corinne May Botz

Hey friends! I’m getting prepared to write my thesis next semester, so it’s time to look at some photography and make arguments about it. Here we go!


Photography denotes reality, but can it denote the complex reality that comes with experiencing trauma? Trauma results from an individual undergoing an event that is so distressing that their means to cope is eclipsed. Photography may not be able to fully capture the deeply depressing or disturbing feelings behind trauma, but it can evoke those feelings in a viewer, depending on the content of the image and the presentation. The nature of photography itself aids in the creation of the traumatic image; the photograph is created by mechanical means, to stop time and freeze it in a moment that can be revisited. The experience of trauma is similarly fixed and long-lasting, a moment that is forever imprinted in the mind of the traumatized. Because the nature of photography is so entwined with the actual experience of trauma, a photograph can “capture the shrapnel of traumatic time.” [1]

The experience of living with trauma varies from person to person, but there are a few characteristics of suffering that are universal. First, the “re-experiencing,” which can be a flashback, an intrusive recollection of the events, or a bad dream. Essentially, these unwanted images of the event crop up and distress the victim, who relives the painful experience. Photography also does this: it takes a specific moment in time and freezes it, making it a visual moment able to be revisited.  Barthes mentions that the photograph is “in essence, a memory but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter memory.”[1] Barthes essentially argues that the photograph replaces the memory itself, that we no longer remember the event itself, just the photographs of it. This is true for trauma as well, as the traumatized individual may not remember the specifics of the event and may have gaps in their memory, but a simple trigger is enough to send them into a flashback, to relive the images forever frozen by the event. “As Barthes puts it, the photograph may be regarded as a ‘temporal hallucination… a mad image.’”

Another characteristic of trauma that is similar to the nature of photography is part of the jargon associated with mechanical art. Words like “take”, “capture”, and “shoot” have violent connotations. Traumatic events have history invested in these words. Like being taken or captured, as a victim of a kidnapping; being shot at the scene of a crime or in the throes of war. It feels as though photography could be a synonym for trauma, as they share many of the same verbs. This is why photography and trauma go together so well—their natures are intertwined.

Corinne May Botz is an artist who explores trauma in her work. Her series, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death was a seven-year project where she photographed miniatures of crime scenes. But, these weren’t her own constructions: the miniatures were actually constructed by master criminal investigator, Frances Glessner Lee, who founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. She built dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases to train detectives with finding visual evidence. Botz explains:

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is an exploration of a collection of eighteen miniature crime scene models that were built in the 1940’s and 50’s by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962). The models, which were based on actual homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, were created to train detectives to assess visual evidence.

The constructions are disturbingly domestic, a somber reminder that traumatic events happen in all spaces, especially within the “safe” space of the home. The tableaus themselves are photographic, because “continuous action cannot be represented, each model is a tableau depicting the scene at the most effective moment, very much as if a motion picture were stopped at such a point.” Just like how a photograph freezes a moment in time, Lee created her constructions as a stopped moment in time for future detectives to investigate. This phenomenon of stopped time is very similar to the experiencing of trauma and lost time, as discussed in previous paragraphs.

The tableaus were created by Lee, but what of Botz’s photographs of them? Let’s take a look.

Three Room Dwelling (gun) These are just three photographs of many (she worked on this project for seven years– there are a lot of photographs,) and each one has elements that speak to Botz’s project as a whole. There is something beautiful about the colors, their childlike quality (as it is a dollhouse,) the floral decor, the toys… Surely these are not criminal spaces? However, the details give it away. The shotgun silhouette and the blood stain on the wallpaper that almost blends in with the floral pattern is one of the more obvious traumas. The tiny little shoe hanging off of a girl’s foot– why are her feet floating off of the ground? Is that a rope? Oh no, it seems that she has been hanged. The nursery, with the out of focus rocking horse in the foreground, the crib with the pink blanket, the matching wall paper with bloodstains splattered near where a child’s head should be… The constructions themselves are horrific, but Botz’s rendering of the scene with her lens makes them traumatic by cropping into a specific space– a frozen moment in time within a frozen moment in time– and gives the viewer the hints to what occurred in these imagined spaces.

As complex as trauma may be, photography is a medium that has risen to the challenge of denoting it. Trauma, in all of its forms, has always given humanity much to talk and make art about, and photography is a means to capture the nature of unfathomable events. Because photography is a medium that is referential, how can anyone resist the urge to create a means to talk about traumatic events, which are oftentimes so personal and difficult to put into words? Photography’s very nature, to its core, is reminiscent of trauma. Even though it is impossible to make someone feel the same trauma or experience that someone else has, and even though photography has its limitations, it makes sense that someone interested in portraying such difficult events would turn to it for assistance. Botz is just one artist who has taken art and photography and made it evoke the feelings of trauma. There are plenty of photographs of the trauma of war found in photojournalism and documentary photography, but these images shock the viewer—Botz’s work makes the viewer contemplative about the banality of trauma, how evil happens even in the most domestic of spaces– especially in the most domestic of spaces. Photography may be referential, but, as Botz proves, it can also be traumatic.

[1] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 52.

[2] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 54.

[1] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 7.

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