Embodying trauma and troubling appearances within photography for the ‘Your Body Belongs to You’ exhibition


'Flow' - Copyright Dee Lister

I currently have the self-portraits shared in this blog (proudly) showing in an exhibition called ‘Your Body Belongs to You’, which was co-curated by Karen Harvey and Marisol Mendez.  I want to contextualise why contributing to this art exhibition is so meaningful for me before explaining my intentions with the images. This is in addition to the great privilege of standing alongside nearly one hundred talented women and non-binary photographers whose two hundred images collectively feature. If you’re itching to see the exhibition click here to view this online via the Shutter Hub’s website. 

I remember years ago someone I vaguely trusted said to me in a judgmental tone, “Dee, you need to stop getting so stressed”. They rattled on about how I should live my life, which was of course in line with their ways of being. I struggled (and still struggle) to find my voice and so forgive my transgression in not calling them out. I was carrying (and still carry) traumatic and abusive experiences and can react by freezing, triggered by another person behaving in a way that made me feel unsafe and threatened. 

Trauma can be defined as the way a person responds to a perceived threat that feels in some way overwhelming (Levine, 2010). It can have debilitating, long-term, and far-reaching effects upon a person’s life and lead to a sense of feeling disconnected from others, ourselves, and our bodies. This is particularly so with posttraumatic stress (Dana, 2020). For this reason, Polyvagal Theory suggests nurturing neuroception and conscious awareness of what’s going on inside the body facilitates the development of new habitual patterns and insight into when a trauma response occurs. This is thought to smooth the way to move more easily to a place of safety and connection. I’ll risk medicalising a distressing experience to say that, in line with Polyvagal Theory, when I was told I was “too stressed” in the past it triggered a disconnect from my body. I shut down as a learned traumatic response.

'Torn' - Copyright Dee Lister

Artful practices such as photography, creative writing and drawing provide me with a safe space to cultivate kindly awareness of my body and how it holds trauma. This supports me to stay present and grounded and is cathartic, which meets with psychological literature that has remarked on the many benefits of creativity on wellbeing (for example, Pennebaker 1997). I wanted to use photography to explore and share an account of my everyday embodied experiences and drew inspiration from other artists. Jo Spence immediately came to mind whose moving autobiographical work constructed a visual diary of her experiences of being treated for cancer that sadly led to her death. I love the emotive self-portraiture of Laura Zalenga that’s set in natural spaces and found Marisol Mendez’s project MADRE powerful by the way the portraits challenged dominant ways in which Bolivian women are portrayed as ‘whitewashed and phallocentric’. The ‘Your Body Belongs to You’ exhibition inspired me to tell a personal story but having seen projects such as MADRE, it also stirred my feminist consciousness. I wanted to consider how I could resist Western cultural narratives that privilege white, cisgender, heterosexual, thin and able bodies as this resonated as someone who identifies as queer and is mixed race and living with disability and chronic illness. 

'Defiant' - Copyright Dee Lister

I created portraits for the exhibition in a way that spoke to me and as I enjoy incorporating a movement in my work, this shaped my intentions to convey a sense of how I experience my emotions and sensations as embodied experiences, as well exploring how my body moves. Sometimes I tremble uncontrollably and stutter through everyday talk and situations, navigating difficult sensations that often seem to arise out of nowhere. Other times I feel like I’m swaying as if a tree in the wind when still, or perhaps enveloped in a serenity that allows for a loose and fluid dance that embodies a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). I chose camera settings that articulated this sense of how I occupy space and move with myself and named each image according to the emotions evoked at the time. 

Creating the images was empowering, though also offered an alternative way of troubling my appearance as a femme subject. I implicitly addressed this by refusing to pose ‘nicely’ for the camera as is often seen in photography. Cisgender heterosexual women are still encouraged to be passive subjects with postures, clothing and facial expressions that are considered flattering and ‘soft’ in line with narrow ideas about femininity, whilst cisgender, heterosexual men are positioned as active subjects, in line with Laura Mulvey’s (1975) notion of the ‘male gaze’. The essentialising of gender as a binary is problematic though it provides a basis from which to explain my intentions to resist being a passive subject. I wanted to perform suffering as well as the lightness of being that comes with feeling in flow, and in doing resist cultural pressures to represent my body as contained and controlled. Just as I found within feminist-narrative PhD research with a small group of cisgender Western women living with invisible illness (Lister, 2017), threaded through my visual narrative was the embodied experiences of a body that doesn’t behave. I too feel the need to perform and strive to keep up an appearance of being able-bodied, which is possible given how I can ‘pass’ (Goffman, 1963) as ‘normal’ most of the time.  

'Strive' - Copyright Dee Lister

I find it disturbing how many images proliferate online that digitally enhance and change body shapes to appear thinner or more toned, smoothing skin so faces look flawless. I feel responsible as a photographer to resist representing myself (and others) by overly editing images, but I also feel the pressure to look and be seen in socially accepted and normative ways. It was a relief to find there was no need to confront my own temptation to overly edit my image given how there was only an abstract impression in the images. 

Amelia Morris (2021) highlighted in a blog post last year that criticism of self-portraiture and selfie culture as narcissistic and vain is oversimplifying and detracting from the way ‘make-up, fashion and selfies enable women and non-binary people to cultivate their identity’. I agree with this sentiment and think it is telling that photography remains dominated by white cisgender and heterosexual men (Jackson, 2019). Queer photographers such as Laura Aguilar and Zanele Muholi have helped to ‘destabilise the male gaze’ (McDonough, 2020) through their work, just as female photographer Sandy Miles is interrupting the narrative about how women’s bodies are represented and by whom in her ongoing project sharing unedited nude portraits of women. This is interesting given how only men during the Victorian era were accepted as artists, positioning the naked women in portraiture as passive subjects. I hope my images add to the current ripples of change and am grateful for opportunities to create artistic work such as has been possible by being part of the 'Your Body Belongs to You' exhibition.  


All images in this blog post are owned and were created by Dee Lister. A warm thanks to Andrea LaMarre for feedback on this piece. Gratitude to Karen Harvey, Marisol Mendez and the Shutter Hub for curating and organising the ‘Your Body Belongs to You’ exhibition, as well as all the women and non-binary photographers whose work is featured. 


Dee Lister (she/they) is a creative photographer and member of Shutter Hub and the Beauty Demands Network. Dee completed feminist-narrative PhD research ‘Telling the Untellable Stories of Women Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)’ and worked as an associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. To see more of their work, follow Dee on Instagram @deelisterphotos and their website ‘What Dee Sees’.  


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