This photographic work is a journey into the twilight state in which traumatic memory lives. I return to this world of rupture and vulnerability and use the camera to facilitate rituals of healing. I do this for the cohesion of my interiority and mental wholeness. In the studio, with a soft, steady gaze through the camera’s lens, I become the observer of my physicality, one sensation at a time. It is an ontological journey where the immediacy and particulars of subjective experience come forward.
At nineteen years of age, on New Year’s Eve, I experienced extensive internal bleeding. This hemorrhaging led to the discovery that I had a major inter-organ tumor. Unprecedented in Poland, there were neither medical case studies nor proposed courses of treatment. Later I learned that mine was one of 300 cases worldwide, and science had few answers to its cause and how to proceed.
I spent weeks in hospital, stabilized after the bleeding and awaiting my first surgery. The first procedure lasted nine hours. Being cut and left open for so long changed my body at a cellular level, leaving signs of stress and anxiety connected to the threat of survival. The impact of this surgery exists as a living archive in my body, a photographic negative that produces images, including the ones that form this book.
Pain. Left side of my back. Intensifying pain. The sensation grows over several weeks, but according to check-ups nothing appears abnormal. Now it hurts so much I cannot move, walk, or sit. Lying down seems to reduce the pain, yet the mattress seems too soft. The floor is a better option. Tears come one after another, until I spasm.
An ultrasound confirms that something is wrong. After a pet scan in a small, private clinic I hear a technician say they will not take the intravenous port from my left hand. He calls for an ambulance. Nervously opening the door, he calls my mother from the hallway and tells her I need to be transported immediately to a well-equipped hospital for surgery. I feel dizzy. Reality blurs. The room spins. A few hours later I am lying in a hospital bed and visitors come.
The patient came in with internal bleeding of an interorgan tumor.
It is frightening and profoundly exhausting to be here. So alone. The disorienting sensation of being rendered immobile while incrementally photographed by this high-tech medical scanning machine. Stilled, my body is burning from the inside.
Department of General, Transplant and Liver Surgery:
ultrasound: In the left adrenal gland, a welldelineated, unrelated to the spleen or kidney, left echogenic change — litho-fluid, without vascularity features in the doppler color is visible. It has dimensions — approx. 100 X 90 X 80 MM. It can be a cyst with bleeding to it or a tumor. It models the left kidney. Spleen of normal size, no post-traumatic changes.
Liver, kidney, pancreas, gallbladder correct.
Non-enlarged retroperitoneal lymph nodes. I do not state the free fluid in the peritoneal cavity.
Medical imagery of my viscera is confusing. The internal bleeding is trapped in the tumor. As long as I lie down it’s safe to wait for a decision of medical consultation on how to proceed further.
A 19-year-old patient admitted to the Clinic in order to diagnose and surgically treat the abdominal tumor. The change was detected accidentally during diagnostic tests of non-specific pain in the left upper abdomen. In imaging studies (ct, usg) a tumor emerging between the left and spleen kidney was visualized. Tumor with internal bleeding, stabilized. Remaining under an ultrasound control and lab tests patient is waiting for surgery.
I hear this every morning for several weeks during the medical rounds consisting of the head of the hospital ward, surgeons, interns and students. Within this hospital superstructure I am an examined body, only referred to in the third person. I lay awaiting new information without any movement. Passive. Cut off from my own feelings.
Fear renders me still in the face of the unknown. I do not want to fall apart. I do not want to see a priest, who is walking around the hospital. I do not want to die.
On the morning of the first surgery I feel peaceful. Without fear I take an elevator down to the surgery block. But I know I will be back.
Operation Description Tab:
given anesthesia: General.
diagnosis: Left adrenal gland tumor.
type of surgery: Tumor excision with part of the pancreatic tail and spleen.
description of the operation:
The abdomen was opened with an oblique incision on the left side of the epigastrium, partially going to the right side. In the retroperitoneal space between the tail of the pancreas and the spleen cavity there is a tumor with a diameter of 10 CM. It is impressed. There is no fluid or changes in other organs in the abdominal cavity. The network has been opened. It was confirmed that the tumor is closely related to the pancreas and spleen. It was separated from neighboring tissues. It was located above the upper pole of the kidney but did not reach the kidney bag. In the immediate vicinity there were left adrenals, which next to the tumor had a normal appearance, but it can not be ruled out that the tumor came from it, because it adhered and partially penetrated the tumor. Tissue and spleen vein were ligated within the pancreatic tail and a resection was performed in one block, taking the tumor along with the spleen and part of the pancreatic tail. Full homeostasis was obtained. The pancreatic tail was sutured. One drain was set up and the abdominal cavity was closed. The tumor after the intersection contained blood clots and a fibrous bag on the periphery.
I wake up in a dark room, choking because of a medical tube inserted in my dry throat. I have no clue where I am. I am unable to move. I look for help. Gazing down, all I can see are other bodies under sheets to my left and right, on separate tables. From behind, someone corrects the positioning of the tube. Quickly I return to sleep, escaping the heavy sedation of my body.
I re-awaken up in the Intensive Care Unit. There are glazing bright lights. Glass separates us from the rest of the world. My memories from these days are vague. I feel cold. Opium flows through my veins. I hardly notice a nurse say that the surgery went well. I barely make out my parent’s anxious faces behind the glass.
There are only flashes of awareness.
White, so much white around me. Clock on the wall. My naked body. I cannot feel my diaphragm. I want to scream but I cannot say a word. Dreaming is better. In my dreams, I can actually move, and even hover. At some point I will wake up.
A nurse asks my name and my age. Izabela, 19 years old. I remember. I heard my voice again.
I am moved to a regular room in the hospital to continue recovery. My body remains desensitized. Intravenous therapy continues. I breathe in and out. In and out. In and out. Breathing holds all the parts of my body together. At the beginning, the movement of air through my body causes pain, from the throat to the stomach. There is a huge wound across my torso, and minimal movements result in intense suffering. In and out. Between acute sensations of pain yet in the flow of the breath, I am dramatically alive. The present tense condition of “body-ness” is in the foreground of my awareness. What was removed? Can I live without it? Can I live with this? In and out.
Department of Pathological Anatomy Department of Clinical Pathomorphology:
received: tumor of the left adrenal gland with the part of the pancreatic tail and spleen. Tissue fragment with dimensions of 10 X 11.5 X 7 CM; within the area of the hilum of the spleen, the spleen and the area around its cavity has a dissected tumor of 8.5 X 7.5 X 6 CM. On the cross-sections the tumor disintegrates, a thick bag is visible on the perimeter, the pancreatic pulp adheres to the bag.
tumor: Solid pseudopapillary carcinoma.
immunohistochemistry: CKAE1 + E3 (+), Chromogranin focal (- +), Synaptophysine (-), CD99 Focal consolidations dot reaction, Vimentyna (+), NSE (+).
In the microscopic picture, the tumor infiltration in the purse is focal, the tumor grows into the pancreatic pulp. There is also an outbreak of angioinvasia. In the central parts, extensive fields of necrosis. No metastasis was found in the lymph node found. Spleen with dimensions of 12.5 X 7 X 2.5 CM. A small outcrop of tumor infiltration was found in the section from the recess of the spleen.
Oncology Center, Institute:
Tumor of the adrenal gland, a fragment of the pancreatic tail — preparation NO. 1036.
result: In the obtained histopathological preparations, the microscopic image corresponds to the tumor defined in the English-language literature as: solid cystic papillary epithelial neoplasm.
This cancer is characterized by low malignancy, in rare cases extremely metastatic, therefore it should be referred to as neoplasm and not malignant neoplasm.
In the months following the first surgery, trauma persists. Trauma changes the body. My body remembers vividly the actions upon it. I am screened regularly in case the tumor returns. The memory of these experiences recurs, at first subconsciously. Pain resurfaces in my body, especially in places of surgical impact, with the suffering at times so extreme that sensations awake me at night.
Not even a year after the first surgery in one of the image-scans it looks like there is alien tissue inside my body. It threatens the integrity of my body. Doctors suspect the tumor is recurring. It necessitates further investigation. The repetition of invasive procedures, including a second surgery, are even more difficult to live through.
I am falling into a deep darkness. I don’t know if I can make it through.
Operation Description Tab:
type of anesthesia: General.
diagnosis: Suspected tumor recurrence of a solid, pseudopapillary pancreatic tail.
kind of operation: Relaparotomy.
Removal of the pancreas around the pancreatic tail. Stretch resection of the pancreatic tail.
description of the operation:
The abdomen was opened in the debris on the left side through the old scar. In the area around the pancreatic tail, tissue necrosis with dimensions of 1 X 1.5 COM. After removing it on the liver, the histopathological examination confirmed that it was a necrotic tumor. A 2 CM section of the pancreatic tail was prepared. It is macroscopically unchanged. However, in computer tomography and in some ultrasound examinations, a focal lesion in this area was suggested — resection of approximately 1.5 CM of the pancreatic tail was performed. In the immediate histopathological examination, the recurrence of the neoplastic disease was also not found in this preparation. All the bleeding sites from the pancreas’ tail cut by the scalpel undercut the vascular stitches. The pancreatic duct could not be identified.
The place of resection was sutured with single pds. One drain was put into the tail area. The abdominal cavity was closed in layers.
Blood loss about 100 ML.
A few years later I wake up in the middle of the night. There is a burning pull and tussle on the left abdominal side of my body. I suspect internal bleeding, another tumor. Yet after all the previous false pain alarms I decide to wait until the morning for another body scan. I am forced several times to visit the Emergency Room. Screenings, however, reveal nothing, yet the pain persists. Concern remains. Again, the scan shows no abnormality.
There is an absence in my body. I breathe in air, and years later, feel fullness on my right side and emptiness on the left side. A crater there. It feels unbalanced.
I breathe in and out. In and out.
I am trying to calm the internal tempest.
Early autumn of 2016, my father was diagnosed with fourth-stage metastatic cancer. Again my body was put on notice. At the time of diagnosis, I was living in New York City, while my father was in Poland. I had deep empathy for my father’s experiences since they so closely mirrored my own as a patient, there were moments I was afraid to leave my room and go into the city. Afraid that my body was made of glass and could shatter at anytime. I knew I must start listening to my body. It was begging for attention: to undergo healing in order to regain balance and control.
From one of my therapists I learned that sources of pain and anxiety are held in unseen layers of the unconscious and subconscious mind. Neuroscience research refers to these traumatic, autobiographical memories as cellular memories. They persist even after the removal of a body organ because memories are stored in the brain as well as in the organ itself. Whenever I am in a stressful situation, these traumatic memories open up in the cells as if I were again fighting for my life on the surgical table. I have developed a hypersensitive internal alarm system, which activates even in harmless situations. Serious about understanding my body, I turned a lens of attention on it.
The introduction of innovative treatments (microkinesitherapy and tuning forks) offered a path to recovery, replacing static feelings frozen in the viscera with connective sensation, bringing the body’s biochemistry and nervous system into harmony. It is a process of attunement. I visited several therapists with a complementary healing approach, experiencing more or less useful treatments proposed.
All agitation begins to settle. With each vibration, calm descends upon my core. At moments marked shifts occur when a deeper affect registers. On a somatic level I know I am releasing a blockage and that healing is underway. I feel the inter-connected network of tissue. One motion ripples throughout. When a session ends, I am a transformed body.
Micro-kinesitherapy reached irritation and trauma through gentle manual therapy, finding old and new scars left by aggressions within the organism tissues. Healing vibrational tuning forks returned my body to its optimum without invasion, matching geometry of natural ratios of my body structure.
Simultaneously, I returned to my photographic practice as a reliable companion, drawing upon my familiar intimacy with the lens yet now turning it solely upon myself. To synchronize the level of knowledge in my body and mind, I began re-performing the trauma under my conditions and re-writing my memories.
Now I am both therapist and patient. As an extension of the healing treatments, my photographic process allows me to settle into my body even more. In these ritual acts of attunement, I am understanding my body’s intelligence even more. So much is surfacing as I take control. This body as a negative is not static; rather it is a repository of emotion and of ease and freedom.
That’s how this body of work about my body and my being began.
Body as a Negative. Sensations of Return is a reflective process of relating to my self and my body’s intelligence. My body calls for my attention to process and transform its trauma. It is also a way to relate to my family, an expression of empathy between daughter and father.
The practice of requesting the body and self to be ‘in tune’ opens a dual process: a spiraling inward toward the past and a reclamation of my inherent life force. Through returning to the memories and reperforming them under my conditions, my body gains peace and vitality. When memories are transformed on a cellular level, the body becomes balanced as if anew.
Two words describe time: chronos (the chronological or sequential time) and kairos (proper, opportune time for action). While chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative. Whenever I photograph myself, I enter the non-linear sense of time — kairos. Kairos is believed to be a soul / self-nourishing time. In kairos there is only the present moment. To achieve it, we must let go of everything else. Though I find the time of making self-portraits related to my soul, my feelings, the ephemeral internal life, there is a strong bodily and surface-related reaction to it. Deep somatic memory is called to visibility in this work, externalized through the photographic surface.
In this act of return, I replace the invasive surgical instrument with my camera as a receptive device to register, merge and enable a ritual of healing.
I want to live. I will live.