Photographing Gestures (IV): Albert Londe, hypnosis and movement

After a summer break with a couple of posts, I continue with the series on “Photographing Gestures & Expressions”. This is the main topic of my current project -so yeah, I should be talking about it! The first three posts were on Duchenne de Boulogne, Darwin and La Salpêtrière, which are the most known examples. But the story is way longer than these early examples, and it just gets more interesting…

The use of photography at La Salpêtrière evolved during the years, and especially since the arrival of the French photographer Albert Londe -my favorite character ever. Londe was hired as a chemist at the laboratory in 1882, became chief of the photographic service two years later and one of the editors of the journal Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière since 1888. At the Salpêtrière, Londe collaborated with Paul Richer and others, capturing their experiments. But he also developed a parallel activity as an inventor and disseminator of photographic techniques, in which he started to apply what he had learned at the Salpêtrière. For example, he advised that photographers should not use the magnesium flash to illuminate nervous patients, as the flash could provoke them a hysterical attack.

L0051692 Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtriêre Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images i

L0051692 Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtriêre
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Albert Londe took these photographs as part of Georges Guinon’s and Sophie Woltke’s research on the effects of sensorial excitation during hypnosis on hysterical women. As usual, they illustrated an article published in the Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtrière in 1891. In it, Guinon and Woltke tested the sensorial excitation of the patients by presenting glasses of different colours, approaching different scents, and making noises.

I particularly like these photographs for several reasons:

First, they materialise an approach to psychology that marked a whole generation in France: the pathological psychology. Following the principles on physiology of Claude Bernard and others, Charcot as well as Guinon and Woltke, and the psychologists Théodule Ribot and Georges Dumas, defended that pathological states were a kind of natural state of experimentation. In this regard, instead of experimenting with the human body, one could just study its variation during illness. This would reveal the normal state of the body.

In this particular case, pathological psychology was applied through hypnosis. At this time, there were a big debate in France about hypnosis, and whether this was a state of the mind induced by suggestion, or, as Charcot defended, a somatic state produced by physiological and nervous reactions. This materialistic approach was seen by Charcot as the only way to prove that hypnosis was real -a thing that happened by scientific means, not faked by some patients and celebrity doctors.

Moreover, Charcot argued that only hysterical patients could be hypnotised -precisely because if their particular nervous condition. Hypnosis, therefore, was a method to study pathological conditions (hysteria) that revealed the normal functioning of the nerves and the muscles.

Following this reasoning, these photographs of hysterical patients under hypnosis showed normal gestures of joy or fear. Although these gestures were performed by women with a pathology, the pathological method allowed the understanding of these results in relation to the normal.

L0051693 Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtriêre Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

L0051693 Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtriêre
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Second, these photographs and others introduced a new category to understand gestures. If we look at the plates, we immediately perceive that the photographs were arranged in groups. Most of the times, two of the photographs represented the same reaction. For instance, Guinon and Woltke described the following scene when a dark green glass was approached to the women: she smelled a flower, put it into her corset, picked up more flowers from the ground to put them in the corset, in a sequence that was repeated until she was stopped. They illustrated this scene with the figures 3 and 4 reproduced in the plate above.

The disposition of the photographs in the plate, together with the medical explanation, led the reader to associate emotional reactions to a sequence of gestures: the movement. And movement was precisely what was completely absent in the previous studies of emotions. Duchenne and Darwin froze expressions, while Londe and his team found a way to recognise the key role of movement in the performance of gestures and expressions. Acknowledging movement was not only hand-in-hand with the recognition of bodily gestures as essential expressive means. It also involved, as we will see in the next post, a whole new conception of photography: chronophotography.

Refugee child

Today is 3rd of September 2015, and by this time everyone has seen the photograph of a Syrian child washed up on a European beach. This little body dressed with a red shirt and blue pants, with the face on the sand like a stranded whale, has become the icon of the “migrant crisis”, now finally understood as it is -“refugees”, human beings escaping war, violence and poverty.

The photo has become viral, massively shared on social media. It’s not even the first photograph of a dead refugee child that has circulated these days, but this has inflamed people, who has suddenly become the most compassionate with the Syrian population. Everyone, including politicians from parties that have participated or supported war in Syria and have reduced the asylum rate, claim against this barbarity.* Why? Why, if we already know that thousands of people are dying in the Mediterranean sea, if we have seen photographs of people literally floating and drowning, if we have read that hundreds are dying suffocated in trucks -why this photo inflames our conscience?

Some say that it is an image, and therefore is worth a thousand words -seeing would not have the same power to move as imagining. Others, that we feel appealed by this photograph because we, Europeans, can identify with the child, whose skin is not dark and is dressed with Western clothes. Both arguments might be right, but they are both based on the same principle: taking the photograph as a fact, a brutal fact that cannot be denied. In this regard, what we are judging is the fact that this child has died washed up in the sea -and not the photograph. Even when the debate goes around the photograph itself and discusses the convenience to publish it, the question is whether it is ethical or not to share photographs of a dead child. Again, we discuss the fact, not the photograph.

The fact is terrible and should not have happened, but we knew it. We did not know him, but we knew, because we have read it, that kids are dying. We should not need a photograph to tell us this. In fact, photographs, as everyone knows, are misleading. As Susan Sontag brilliantly put it in her Regarding the Pain of Others, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain”. Photographs alone do not tell stories, do not state facts. Where many cannot help but feel compassion, empathy or anger, others have seen “greedy” parents.

I always try to escape the “reality trap” when dealing with photographs -that is, whether they show reality or are just a construction/manipulation- and focus on what the photographs do. But photographs of catastrophes and dramas challenge me because they depict terrible things, and of course I focus on the thing -the IMPORTANT thing.

But we also have to make the effort to go beyond that and to try to understand how photography has mobilized people to such a degree if we want to understand our own culture. I think that this photograph has become an icon because social media users have started to share it. It has been this photograph, but it could have been any other photograph appearing at the right moment. As image the photo is impressive, but its aesthetic qualities alone cannot account for the popularity of the picture. Neither can the identity of the child, whose story has only been revealed by newspapers after the photograph has become viral. And this photograph has become viral because some users have started to share it together with compassionate messages of indignation, and the rest of us have agreed with them. Sharing the photograph has become our way to show our support for the refugees, a call to political parties to accept more refugees – our means to express our attitudes towards the problem. Sharing the photograph does not help to solve the problem of refugees, but the messages that accompany it and the repetition of the image in the context of denounce do help to create a collective imaginary.

Photography is not powerful because of what it shows, but for the multiple, collective ways in which it can be used.

*Cristina Cifuentes is currently the president of the Region of Madrid, and belongs to the conservative party Partido Popular. I take this as an example because I know better Spanish politics, but I guess it sadly applies for other countries too.