Healing and the Body as a Space in Chen Zhe's series "Bees" & "The Bearable" (2007–2012)

This paper poses the question of how mental wounds can be expressed through photography, and the duality of mental and physical pain.

Bees, Chen Zhe
Typically, when we think of the act of taking a photograph of something we think of the emotional underpinning process of wanting to remember that thing. Be it on our phones or cameras, if we take a photo of the sunset, our loved ones, a meal, or the reflection of the sun on a wall, it tends to be because we want to hold onto that memory, we want to have proof that we were here, that we saw what we saw and we want to remember how it made us feel. Typically.

Now, of course there is an entirely different branch, so to say, of photography. A very different road to take is to try and immortalize not just that which is beautiful or which was nice, but that which matters, in one way or another. With this I am referring to trauma photography, the act of photographing trauma.

Often when one looks into trauma photography, one of the most well known examples are those of shared and collective trauma – the Holocaust, 9/11, war photography, victimhood and survival. There are many documentary photographers, such as Sebastião Salgado, who traveled in over a hundred and twenty countries, known for working in less developed countries and capturing the pain, suffering and traumas of their inhabitants. Fires, deaths, starvation, poverty.

In a similar way, aftermath photography, also called late photography, offers capturing trauma where it occurred, even if not visible at the moment it's being photographed. "A term often used for trauma and memory in Germany after 1945" [2], aftermath photography attempts to capture the lingering feeling after an event, the way that the earth looks after a hurricane.

This paper will concern itself with the representation, or capturing, of mental trauma through photography. It does not attempt to compare different traumas in any way, only to point at the difference in conceptualizing them.

Physical trauma, such as abuse, can be captured. Donna Ferrato, for example, does just that through her photobook Living with the enemy (1991) in which she captures domestic abuse both as it is happening as well as in its aftermath. The photos capture the blows taken by women, the police flooding their living rooms, the crying children, the bruised ribs and faces, the blood, the hospital lights. It is a horrific and traumatic sight. But it is a sight. It can be seen, it can be pointed to. Even if the crying or screaming cannot be heard, it can still be seen. Still be brought to light. It cannot be denied, not once confronted with the imagery of it. It is tangible.

Mental trauma is a very different story. There is no one way that it looks, whilst you can always point to a photograph of a person and clearly see if they are bruised and battered and say, Yes, this is a photo of someone who has been abused, the same does not stand for mental trauma. You cannot always (if never) point to a photograph and say, Yes, clearly this is the photo of a depressed person, or so on. Because there is no one way trauma looks. When it is mental, when it is internal, it shifts and squeezes to fit the person. And it can go unnoticed by even those closest to it, sometimes, including the person suffering from it.

Thus this paper aims to raise several questions, the largest of which is, how do we document, photograph, materialize mental trauma? What does a photograph of a mental wound look like? How can photography serve to visualize, to make tangible that which is often blurry and hard to express? And finally, can the self-documentation of mental trauma, of trauma in general, help the person heal? Can forcing oneself to remember, to immortalize one's pain be a way of healing it?

In order to attempt to answer these questions, this essay will take as an example a selection of a few photographs from Beijing-based multimedia artist Chen Zhe's series "Bees & The Bearable" (2007–2012). The series takes a specific take on the embodiment of mental trauma; the lived experience of trauma onto the body. "Bees" is a combination of two separate photographic projects. "The Bearable" documents Zhe's years of self harm, whilst "Bees" reaches to take in and photograph the experience of others who have self harmed. It is a deeply personal project aiming to take a look at both the pain we inflict ourselves, as well as that of others. It brings to light the practice of bringing pain from the mental realm to that of the body, of creating a visible wound, one that was born out of the pre-existence of a mental one.

Self harm knows many faces, and whilst often it is predominantly depicted as self mutilation, it can also be found in smoking, cigarette burns, alcohol, eating disorders, etc… all portrayed in Zhe's work.

This paper will begin with a step into trauma theory altogether, followed by, what will be a central point to the analysis, the conceptualization of the body as a lived place, and a textual analysis of a number of chosen photographs from Zhe's work.

Part I – Trauma sits in places

When looking into trauma theory one of the first and most focal components that becomes evident is the role of memory, or lack thereof. In a way, the first place trauma sits is memory, and it also often happens to hide there as well as just sit. There is a general consensus and idea of trauma as something that is not assimilated at the time it is experienced and rather comes back to haunt us later on [3]. When discussing the phenomenon of repressing trauma and memory, especially in relation to identity building, Culbertson [5] writes that this (whatever it may be) trauma finds itself "repressed by some part of himself which functions as a stranger, hiding self from the self's experience" [6, p. 169].

Thus, to a degree when concerning ourselves with trauma photography, in the act of it, there is a process of recognition and healing, a regaining of the self, a regaining of the trauma and of the events which have occurred. Sometimes that happens when provoked, such as when in therapy, for example [7] or simply in a natural way, through time and resurfacing of memories.

The role of memory, in the way it was just exposed, will not be central nor studied in this paper as it is not its aim.
However, it is relevant to mention the importance of memory when it comes to trauma and healing and it cannot ever be fully (if at all) separated. Its weight and significance is all the more pressing in relation to this paper and the case study because of the very time-related or memory-related component of photography itself, especially as it was mentioned in the introduction, in relation to late photography. For example, when discussing late photography, Campany [4] quotes Meyerowits saying that if "there was no photographic record allowed, then it was history erased" [4, p. 123]. Whilst this is in relation to historical and collective traumas, hence history here is used to signify history at a larger degree, the same must surely apply to an individual's personal traumas and history.

"In general, historical events, notably war and genocide, thave been the major drivers of the study of traumatic stress; it has taken much longer for the significance of individual, private traumas to be widely acknowledged" [8, p. 44].

Taking this into account, naturally at first look when thinking or looking at trauma photography one is faced with historical events and collective trauma. Similarly, when adding the degree of memory to the mix, it is a matter of collective memory and the importance of remembering history, a recollection of events and suffering.

Personal trauma on the other hand is a more intimate narrative. When it comes to its documentation, so to speak, I would argue that historically it has primarily been communicated through words. Literature and poetry hold a vast archive of human suffering that is intimate and private. Anything raging from actual diaries, to plays, novels, self help books and poetry books holds accounts of the many subtle traumas of human experience as well as reflections of more particular traumatic experiences. Writers such as Sylvia Plath for instance, dedicated their entire careers to the act of trying to place a finger on their trauma, whatever that trauma may be. Plath wrote about her father, her childhood, her suicide attempts, love and motherhood, and through writing about all of that she always wrote of her depression. Of course, she was far from the first and far from the last, but this was used as an example here as her name remained in history synonymous to the self expression of her trauma.

Another interesting aspect of the sharing of one's individual traumas through art, (something that will be relevant and talked about later on when discussing Zhe's body of work) is that whilst it is a personal story being told, it still becomes collective trauma in a sense. Whilst many details of Plath's depression might not have resonated with her readers, what did was the general stomaching of life and taste of sadness. The same applies to Zhe's work.

As it was mentioned earlier, "The Bearable" is an account of Zhe's years of self harm – it presents imagery of her arms, her cuts, her hair, her skin and her blood alone. "Bees" however, extends that outside of herself.

"From the relatively simple act of tattooing one's skin, or of ear piercing to the more serious acts of auto-mutilation and body modification, Zhe found those she calls "Bees" by showing them first her own scars. She calls them "Bees" out of Virgil's quote: They left their lives in the very wounds they had created for themselves" [10].

Hence, through the expression of personal trauma in art there is still a forming of a collective. Following that thread of thought it can also be argued that there are then two acts of recognition; the first, the recognition of the self and of the trauma and the recognition of a community of people who from their side recognize parts of their trauma in said art.

Before getting to the actual work and photographic portrayal of this community of self-harmers, I would like to discuss the nature of the trauma about to be portrayed first. So far trauma has been discussed as an event, as something that happens to us, forced onto us through the outside world, with examples such as childhood abuse, sexual abuse, etc. [6] In the case of Zhe's work, and photographs without explicit context, we of course cannot be sure what the basis of the trauma experienced by those photographed is and so in this paper when trauma is referred to it also incorporates mental trauma such as mental illness.

However, there is another layer of trauma that is central to the case study and overall analysis. The trauma expressed in Zhe's collection of photographs is double. For the whole body of work represents different forms of self harm and mental struggles the trauma there is dual.

First, there must have been a pre-existing trauma, one that is not communicated nor expressed to the audience, one that remains personal and secret to the individuals and only its existence is known.

Second, is the expression of that first trauma, whatever may it be, through the many acts of self harm. "Self-injury is associated with negative psychological consequences" [9, p. 42]. For in this case, the act of self harm is a brand new trauma, but this time one that is self-inflicted in order to deal with the previous one. It is, in a way, once again "the trace of a trace of an event" [2, p. 5].

Part II – The body as a place

If we say that trauma sits in places, it is important, individually and personally to know where those places are. If we are referring to a traumatic event, of course it seems evident to say that trauma sits there where it happened. Concentration camps and battlefields. In our childhood homes, out in the street. Once again here, there is an intention to separate personal and individual trauma from the collective one, as it is not the topic of this paper. However, it's still worth noting that even that which is collective trauma is experienced by individuals and hence the process and conceptualization of space that is going to be used to analyze Zhe's work is relevant in all cases of trauma.

Trauma sits in places, and naturally, it has outside world triggers. It sits in rooms, and smells, in words, behaviours, in who other people are to us. It can sit in a month which comes around every year bringing the same weather and heaviness, shoveling that which was asleep until then. There can be an infinite amount of triggers. And then there is the place where trauma not only sits but lives and breathes, which is inside of us. Furthemore, when "inside of us" is used here it does not merely refer to our internal worlds (our minds) but to our bodies.

This paper focuses and relies on one important concept which is the body as a place. The body is a place where things happen, time sits, experience is felt and lived.
Edward Casey's "Between Geographies and Philosophy: What does it mean to be in a place-world?" (2001) will be mentioned on several occasions as it was a founding into this existent and more or less emerging disposition of viewing the body as a place.

In this essay when referring to the first degree of trauma previously mentioned (the mental trauma which led the individual to a state of self harm, to becoming a bee) is going to be referred as the trauma of the self, whilst the second degree of trauma, (that of self inflicted pain) will be referred to as the trauma of the body. Both are deeply interconnected as what this essay will argue is precisely that the body is a place, and the self lives in the body. "Self-injury is associated with negative psychological and physical consequences [9, p. 42].

Casey takes a look at different approaches in philosophy thus far when dealing with the conceptualization of the body and the self. "Contra Descartes, the body is recognized as integral to selfhood, with the result that we can no longer distinguish neatly between physical and personal identity" [5, p. 684]. What this translates to is the following: if the body is a place where the self lives, then the two are directly connected. A trauma undergone by the self lives in the body, in the muscles and the tensions. A trauma to the body is integrated by the self as a direct trauma to the self.

If we take for example domestic abuse this becomes all too evident. A trauma to the body, inflicted by a person that is supposedly loved, cannot be isolated to the body. That is inherently a traumatic experience for the self. This direction of the exchange, or enmeshment of body and self is typically more widely discussed and seen. The questions that Zhe's work arises however, the questions that this essay asks, are about the opposite direction. What about a trauma of the self? A trauma that first occurs within the self. That cannot be seen nor perceived by anyone, including the one who is suffering of its affliction.

Perhaps that kind of trauma can feel almost like a phantom limb, like an imagined reality. Is that then, not the role that these many different rituals of self harm play? To make something out of that which is felt but hard to pin down. To have a bodily experience, lived proof of its living.
Following which comes the third step of Zhe's journey, the photographing of the body.

When delving into the exchange that happens between the lived body and the outside world in which it lives, Casey differentiates between an outgoing and an incoming relationship. The outgoing being that of the body going into an outside space and changing it through its presence, whilst the ingoing being the way that the body "bears the traces of the places it has known" [5, p. 688].

"There is an impression of the place by which the presence of a place remains lodged in our body long after we have left it; this presence is held within the body in a virtual state" – [5, p. 688]

In this sense, when spoken of here, the same holds true giving "the presence of a place" a larger definition. In this analysis that is understood as the presence of any trauma, of any experience which has been had and keeps living in the body.

In order to analyze and look at the discourse in Zhe's work there is value in understanding self-harm. Once more a reminder that self harm is an umbrella term and does not solely refer to the act of cutting one's skin open, even if Zhe had a specific fascination with blood. As will be seen further in other of her photos, they are far from all centering mutilated bodies. Instead self harm is communicated through a wink, a reminder, a suggestion, a feeling.
Birthday, The Bearable, Chen Zhe
"Birthday" (The Bearable, 2010), Chen Zhe
The photograph below (Birthday, 2010) is the only explicit one which will be used in this essay, but it is a necessary one. It is a raw portrayal of trauma that has just been inflicted on the body. A lived image of trauma occurring. Her arm, which looks almost like a road, with the palm as its horizon, shimmers in blood. It is almost landscape photography. Or perhaps it is entirely. If the body is a place, then is photographing that which occurs in that place not a landscape photograph?
The blood spilled is in the middle of the photograph, the lightest part, whilst the edges stay darkened and blurred, and further light and color at the horizon. It is more than just a photograph of an arm after self harm. It is a communication of an act that seems to be the only focused thing. A centering act, it seems almost paradoxical that a photograph which has the subject matter which this does, can look soft and warm.

Having torn the process of a trauma of the self being converted into a trauma of the body, the third step seems to then be photographing that trauma. Which of course raises the question, Why?
As it has already been mentioned, Zhe's photographs offer "the trace of a trace of an event" [2, p. 5].
Body Wounds, The Bearable, Chen Zhe
"Body Wounds" (The Bearable, 2010), Chen Zhe
Body Wounds (2010) for example, whilst still a part of The Bearable series, is an already very different approach to photographing self harm. Firstly, because, well, we do not see the self harm. Whilst blood is still present, it is blood soaked up by tissues. But if one were to see this photograph without the context of the series, without the knowledge of what has been captured, there is no guarantee that the first conclusion one would come to is that this is a representation of the aftermath of self harm.

I would like to refer to [1] to further argue that in a sense what Zhe offers with many of these photographs is late photography. For Body Wounds, like many other of her photographs, brings us to a place to which we have arrived too late, only there in the aftermath of trauma. We are witnessing her self harm, we are witnessing her trauma rather than viewing it. There is a sense of helplessness within the viewer as much as, almost, a certain feeling of voyeurism.

When conceptualizing the relationship between the trauma of the self and the body one could also look at the title of the photograph. "Body Wounds" by itself creates a separation, a categorization of wounds. For there to be "body wounds" there must also be "mental wounds". Perhaps that is the role of "body wounds", to be seen in a way that mental wounds cannot be. But also to be treated in a way that mental wounds cannot be. Whilst this late photograph of self harm, is indeed a photograph of self harm, of self inflicted trauma to the body, it is also a photograph of healing. It is wet paper towels which have been used to soak up the blood. What that means that after pain had been inflicted, there was also a process of cleaning it up. Of soaking up the blood, of throwing away the paper towels, of tidying up the mess. Thus it creates out of the culprit a saviour as well. The one who inflicted pain is the one to attempt at easing it. It's a joint process which is once more easier to perceive when being shown in the physical realm of things, but one that also exists on a mental level.

Passing on to Bees (2010–2012) the expression of trauma starts to change. It becomes a less direct unveiling of blood and scars, and more of a suggestion to what is occurring. Everything that is traumatic, that is a reincarnation of self harm here could pass as accidental. The cigarette burn on a hand, the act of smoking itself, the smudged make-up on an unmade bed. The context of the narrative here is what shapes it. Perhaps that is part of it. The series also holds photographs of blood and the stitching of scars. But for the sake of the argument of this essay these are not the ones that have been selected to be discussed as I think it's important to underline self harm is not solely the act of cutting one's skin open, and Zhe succeeds at translating that in every photograph.

The trauma that sits in the body is represented through those photographs, for they are photographs of the body alone. That is half of the project. The other half, such as the two photographs seen above, rather explores the self, attempting to transcend it.

Here is an illustration of both- both technically photographs of beds, of bedsheets. And yet. When looking at the first one does not just see a bed. It's a representation of entanglement. Of being twisted. Of isolation and heaviness, it is almost claustrophobic. It is not being able to get out of bed for days (something which can also be seen as an act of self harm).

Whilst the second one is also a photograph of a place, that place is the body. The bed is not the subject, the bedroom is not as relevant. The body is. The long thin scar like a highway, the arched back, the nakedness, the shadow, the parted hair. It is a photograph of vulnerability and despair.

Now that the process of the communication of trauma and the conceptualization of the body as a place has been discussed, the next step of what this essay initially set out to attempt and answer is the healing process. How does the documentation of a two layered trauma aid in healing it?
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Part III – Healing trauma and the self through photography

It was not Zhe's intention to be known for her photographing of self harm. As a matter of fact, it was accidental. In an interview with [10] she tells the story of the series. Of how she started to self harm during her high school year, and formed the habit of taking photographs after it was done, almost in a ritual like manner. How she kept an archive of those photos on her computer, until years later when she was a student at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles she had an assignment to bring in self portraits. Out of fear of missing the deadline she ended up bringing photos from the aforementioned high school self harm archive. That is when for the first time she realized there is something there, there is a reason she has collected all of these small traumas.

The entire journey of the work is one of harming and healing. "No experience is more one's own than harm to one's own skin" [6, p. 170]. Let's say then that self harm is viewed as a regaining of agency in the eyes of those who choose to do it, precisely the act of choosing to inflict trauma in a world which chaotically and irreversibly inflicts on us. Following that can lead to the assumption that the keeping of an archive is a form of personal remembrance, proof that trauma was felt and lived. Inarguably, there is a healing process in the act of creating art of one's pain, for it's been done since the birth of art.

"When I see the photos that I took back then", she says as she pours tea, "I see trauma, and maybe even madness, but it also feels like a celebration to me" [11].

This alone communicates a process of detachment and capacity of perceiving one's trauma from an outside perspective.

That same night she also realised it was the last time she would hurt herself. "What happened in that cramped room", she says, "was so vibrant to me, it felt like I had made the crucial shot, a sublime moment, a perfect finale, both aesthetically and personally. I felt very content. One more attempt would make it redundant" [11].

Quite literally the process of finding a community of people who had shared in Zhe's reality, who recognized themselves in one another and were able to create a space for each other, led to her deciding to end a long standing ritual and cycle of self harm. The project of both photographic series as a whole marked the end of that phase for Zhe, through an asking of questions and exploration of the self.

"Art, Chen thinks, is able to help us ask difficult questions about ourselves. "How does a fascination come to be? What does it feel like? And how bad is it if the fascination is a dark one? In Bees and The Bearable I asked myself these questions". Chen is glad that she had the opportunity to share these questions with others. "Why", she asks, "would a poet publish a poem after he wrote it? He can just be satisfied with having written it and then put it in a drawer. But what often happens is that he would read it out. He wants it to resonate with people, even though he must be embarrassed to admit it, like I used to be" [11].

This underlines the importance of not only photographing her own trauma but recognizing that trauma, that shared mental and bodily space within and with others plays in moving through it and coming out on the other end. It feels as if the series creates a world of its own of communal sharing of pain that leads to a place of relief, of recognizing that reality in order to set it aside and start healing.
The Bearable (2007–2010), Chen Zhe
The Bearable (2007–2010), Chen Zhe

I would like to here take a small window of space to underline that Zhe's intention through this series is not and never was the romanticisation of self harm. In the interview with GUP magazine [11] she points out that when her work was being received publically, some were calling self harm "brave" which was not her intention and instead made her angry. She also explains the bee metaphor further,

"Bees sting in order to protect life, which they end up losing. That is to jeopardize existence for existence itself. I find this inherent paradox of a bee's activity very alike to what I see in my subjects and myself, too. More often we feel the need to hurt ourselves in order to endure life. I'm also more comfortable using a poetic term to refer to my subjects instead of pointing to them simply as patients of some diseases. There is a flattening effect in that naming that I've strived to avoid. Every subject is an individual, not just "one of them" – his or her life cannot be predicted or dictated by a social construction" [11].

None of what has been expressed thus far in her series as well as in this paper aims at romanticizing self harming behavior. To "jeopardize existence for existence itself" is not a romantic concept. It is, after all, trauma.
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
Bees (2010–2012), Chen Zhe
The fact that the series itself contains both more brutal and more soft photographs is an expression of the mental state. The softness expressed and felt in many of the photographs is not a softness born out of the act of self harm; it is the softness carried by Zhe and her subjects.

Zhe's series managed to portray not only self harm, but also a state of mind, a blurriness, a feeling of exasperation, of chaos, of loneliness. She captured the quiet moments of trauma as well as the bloody ones, the holding of the breath as well as frustration of letting it go. She expressed in both series a process of harm, of trauma, madness and pain as well as of acceptance, of slow healing. The fact that through the years of making both series she reached a place of healing, of moving past the experience of the trauma is telling of the role and power that photographing trauma can have in moving past from it. Of capturing it, recognizing its existence and then leaving it there. Perhaps proving that in order to move past things, to heal from them, a necessary if not crucial part is accepting them, having a relationship with the trauma in order to be able to put it to bed.


1. Baer, Ulrich. "Spectral Evidence". MIT Press, 2005, pp. 60–85
2. Brett, Donna West. "Introduction: Photographing Place in Germany After 1945" Photography and Place, 1st edition of Taylor & Francis Group. 2015, pp. 1–13
3. Caruth, Cathy. "Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History". Yale French Studies, no. 79, 1991, pp. 181–192
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