An explosion of visual hysteria

I’ve written an article for the magazine fotografya about how photography was initially used by doctors to document ‘hysteria’ in the 19th century but quickly became a vector through which the condition was spread.

The most influential photos came from the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where, under the direction of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, hysteria was redefined to mean the appearance of apparently neurological symptoms, like paralysis or epileptic-like movements, without any clear damage to the nervous system.

Harnessed due to its presumed ability to objectively record the symptoms of patients, the camera became a vector for the condition, causing doctors to diagnose it in far greater numbers and for patients to express their distress through ‘hysterical’ symptoms in increasing numbers. We tend to think of media fashions as transient and frivolous but we forget that popular culture is as much an influence on illness and its treatment as science itself. For many, Charcot’s iconic pictures became the public expression of their private anguish and their documentary potential extended beyond the hospital walls to capture the broken spirit of the times.

These conditions are now known diagnosed as ‘conversion disorder‘ or considered to be ‘psychogenic’ in nature because psychological factors are thought to be behind the symptoms rather than what they appear to be – namely brain damage.

This means that the conditions are more likely to appear in people who already have experience of them, so early depictions of them were part of the process that led to an explosion in their appearance and diagnosis.

fotografya is a Turkish magazine and it has my original in English but I recommend checking out the Turkish translation as it is wonderfully illustrated by some of the striking photos of the time.

The article traces the history of ‘photographing madness’ from its clinical origins to its place in 19th century pop culture.

Link to article ‘Studio Charcot’ in English.
Link to Turkish translation with awesome illustrations.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 29, 2010 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    Great article.
    There’s a fundamental paradox in describing “conversion disorders” or whatever you call them – by talking about them, you make them more likely to happen – and yet the whole point in talking about them is to demystify them and therefore make them less likely to happen, surely?


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