Photographs You Weren’t Supposed to See

Thoughts on Photography and Violence

Introduction: The Collapsing Envelope

uman beings are members of an exclusive group: animals that recognize their own faces in a mirror. We share this category with the great apes, Asian elephants, Eurasian magpies, and bottlenose dolphins. As a species, we are alone, however, in our ability to express dismay at the faces we see, particularly when these faces reflect the suffering of others.[1] In an excerpt from her book Regarding the Pain of Others published in the New York Times in 2003, Susan Sontag shares a thought experiment originally proposed by Virginia Woolf in 1938, in which she asks us to imagine “a spread of loose photographs extracted from an envelope that arrived in the morning post. They show the mangled bodies of adults and children.”[2] Woolf published the idea in Three Guineas, her reflections on the roots of war, written during the fascist insurrection in Spain. In the book, she fears that humans are on course to desensitizing themselves from such images — a failure on the part of the imagination and empathy, argues Sontag, a failure to process reality. “Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage,” she fears, would be the “reactions of a moral monster.”[3]

Our constant access, and indeed, involuntary exposure, to images of violence and suffering renders Woolf’s envelope analogy practically impossible to relate to. Cries that the digital space is overcrowded with such images and videos have become clichéd at this point. Woolf’s envelope is not filled to the brim, or overstuffed: it is on the verge of bursting, collapsing. I fear we are once more on this collision course to de-sensitivity, living in a period Freud characterized as a “cool, inflexible energy developed to the highest point.”[4] In two essays collectively published as “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” the Father of Psychology describes a climate of illusion and desensitization shattered by the unrivaled carnage of the Great War. Too faithfully had men and women believed in a sense of (white) civilization to have been attuned to the “biological and psychological necessity for suffering in the human life,” finding blissful distraction in beauty, apparent order, and inconsequential things of intellectual importance.[5] The ways in which we consume images today, in the so-called “Age of Scrolling,” when our access to the entire human record is at its greatest, (Freud once noted that “Each of these citizens of the civilized world has created for himself…a ‘School of Athens’ of his own”), it becomes infinitely harder for images of suffering to attract our attention; when they do, the degree of suffering we are willing to accept — to not be phased by — proves to be the real picture of horror.[6]

lmost eleven years to the day that Sontag published the first chapter of Regarding in the New York Times, eighteen-year-old Katie Stubblefield placed the barrel of a .308-caliber hunting rifle below her chin and pulled the trigger. Katie survived, and three years later, became the fortieth — and youngest — person in the world to undergo a total face transplant. National Geographic spent two years documenting her story in feature articles, culminating in Edythe McNamee’s documentary, Katie’s Face.

Maggie Steber for National Geographic, September 2018 issue

Katie shot herself on the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, in which the field of plastic surgery was born from necessity. Photographs of mutilated veterans, however, were taken by war surgeons, and prevented from circulating in the British press, published exclusively in medical textbooks like Harold Gillies’s Plastic Surgery of the Face (1920). The photographs within were images of — and for — the future: destined to one day “form part of an official record and memory of war — rather than for the present.”[7]

Unlike the coverage that Katie received, as the latest medical miracle in a two-decade-old operation, early twentieth century society had never faced anything like what they saw when the boys came home. Our preconceived notions of what constituted humanness were suddenly and effectively dismantled; this is reflected not only in the rhetoric of the day, but likewise in the pre- and post-operational photographs that came out of maxillofacial units like that of Gillies.

From Plastic Surgery of the Face (1920) by Harold Gillies

Katie’s story appeared in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic alongside articles like “The Emotional Journey of Photographing a Face Transplant” (an article on aesthetics) and “See How Trailblazing Science Fixed a Wounded Face” (medical journalism). More pressing here is a third article titled “What’s It Like to Have a New Face?” in which the magazine commissioned photographer Martin Schoeller to produce a series of portraits and video testimonies of four men and women who have previously had the procedure.[8]

Martin Schoeller, portrait of Connie Culp for National Geographic, 2018
Martin Schoeller, portrait of Shaun Fiddler for National Geographic, 2018

I argue that National Geographic’s selection of Schoeller to photograph victims of assault, automobile and firearms accidents, and attempted suicide was a seriously inappropriate choice, even when taking into account his audience: a society desensitized to images of violence, whose choice of magazine subscription points to an interest in looking at spectacles of nature.[9] My conclusion is that although Schoeller’s corpus, taken as a whole, bears clear artistic intention, his images of face transplant patients are regressive, echoing back to the conventions of medical portraits taken during the Great War, while much of the photographic community has developed more sensitive ways of photographing the same patients (see family portraits of Katie above). By contrast, a set of little-known photographs from the Imperial War Museum, taken by one Sgt. Weber on a single day in 1943 North Africa, demonstrates a certain forward-thinking that transgressed the accepted norms of his time of how to photograph soldiers with facial injuries. My thesis is that although he was a war photographer, Weber thought like an artist. Put in conversation, the portraits of Schoeller and Weber speak to changing definitions of humanness, masculinity, visibility, and photographic responsibility.

Martin Schoeller Takes a Step Back: On (Not) Being Human

LEFT: Major Harold D. Gillies, record shots of patients receiving corrective plastic surgery during the First World War, probably at The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup / RIGHT: Martin Schoeller, portrait of Richard Norris for National Geographic, 2018

et us begin with a juxtaposition between Gillies and Schoeller. At their most essential, the photographs are front-facing portraits with extremely shallow depths of field, thereby centering our eyes on two inherited faces: one, the offspring of mechanized warfare, the other the result of a life-prolonging medical marvel. The anonymous soldier’s lips — a vehicle for that great human apt for communication — have been sown over by pedicle flaps likely taken from his chest. The mutilated lower half of his face resonates against the striking ordinariness of his eyes. His face is new, damaged, broken. He awaits a newer face still. Harris is pictured wearing his new face, yet up close, in the shifting of his eyes and off-kilter alignment of his jaw, the medical imperfections of the procedure reveal themselves. His inherited face — an organ that supposedly identifies one as unique, and more broadly as human — does not fit him completely right. Can he look in the mirror, and claim to see “himself”? Can the soldier? In their chosen method of photographing the face, both Schoeller and Gillies — carrying out his duties as surgeon and photographer — are enamored by what Susan Sidlauskas identifies as the “spectacle of the face,” one “forged through a risky brinkmanship in which the subject’s visage is brought to the edge of structural and perceptual coherence.”[10] In these extraordinarily intimate encounters, Gillies and Schoeller risk draining their of subjects of that which makes them human.

In her essay “Torture and the ethics of photography,” Judith Butler suggests that how we respond to the suffering of others depends on our ability to identify human characteristics in that which “cannot be named or regarded as the human, a figure of the nonhuman that holds the place of the human in its unrecognizability.”[11] Butler published her essay in 2007, after the U.S. Army’s war crimes at Abu Ghraib rose to public attention and just as America was about to elect a president to succeed the Commander-in-Chief who brought them there. After a torrent of media circulation, the public judged the actions of the soldiers and the subsequent conditions of the prisoners as something less than human. Butler proposes that those characteristics we perceive as human-like are governed by a set of “norms” that change over time, making humanness “a value and morphology” that can be prescribed and “retracted, aggrandized, personified, degraded and disavowed, elevated and affirmed.”[12] Yet, in their respective times, neither the facially mutilated veteran nor the transplanted face — the two obvious subjects in the photographs we are dealing with — has been considered human.

Horace Nicholls, from the “Tin Noses Shop” of Francis Derwent Wood, 1918.

the Great War, the loss of one’s face was perceived as a loss of humanity. The only hope at restoring it was through plastic surgery or prosthetic repair, but the procedure was as new to the patients and public as it was to the surgeons performing it.[13]

One of two types of photographs was generally taken in this early period: before-and-after snapshots of patients, taken by surgeons who had to learn their craft on the job, and images of mask makers like Francis Derwent Wood, who produced casts and bronze masks with the intention “to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded.”[14] He hoped that the masked veteran would regain his “old self-respect, self-assurance, self-reliance, and, discarding his induced despondency, tak[e] once more to a pride in his personal appearance.”[15]

Major Harold D. Gillies, record shots of a patient after receiving corrective plastic surgery during the First World War, probably at The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup.

Schoeller’s portraits bear greater resemblance to the first sort of image, medical photographs “for the future,” as previously argued, designed to mark advances in the field of plastic surgery and reintegrate patients into society. The photographs published in Gillies’s Plastic Surgery of the Face are often shown in sequence, over the course of the patients’ stay at the hospital, and are accompanied by illustrations of the procedure. They show soldiers making great strides while recovering, but concede when there is nothing more for the surgeon to do, but wait for the patient to heal on his own. American historian Sander Gilman observed that the outcome of these surgeries was “not the same as looking better, or becoming invisible. It is about becoming ‘differently visible,’ even when the new you is patently artificial.”[16]

Patently artificial and differently visible men were especially new to a public that identified men’s humanness with their masculinity, and their masculinity with their appearance and social roles as workers, husbands, and fathers. A culture of looking away, born from fear, disgust, and shame, deemed these men less than human, not from the loss of any physical function, but a social one — because their faces lie outside what constituted the human, they were thought to be unfit for work, marriage, or family life. The horror of disfigurement, argues Joanna Bourke, was thus a question of “being a man,” that is to say, looking like one — rather than “acting” as one.[17]

Here is how one medical orderly described a hospitalized veteran:

To talk to a lad who, six months ago, was probably a wholesome and pleasing specimen of English youth, and is now a gargoyle, and a broken gargoyle at that, — the only decent features remaining being perhaps one eye, one ear, and a shock of boyish hair…You know [that] one eye of his has contemplated the mangled mess which is his face — all the more hopeless because ‘healed’.”[18]

“It is not to be wondered,” wrote one hospital inspector in 1918, “that such men become victims of despondency, of melancholia, leading in some cases, even to suicide.”[19] Cruelly, even the deceased were thought to be more human than the living veterans: at least when they died, they died men. Freud wrote of this paradox. He argued that we cannot imagine our own deaths, thus we externalize it as something that is not a human inevitability, but rather a chance event. We then “adopt a special attitude” verging on admiration as if “for someone who has accomplished a very difficult task. We suspend criticism of him [and] set out all that is most favourable to his memory…”[20] Human are those who succumbed to death; monsters are those who looked death in the face, were robbed of their own, but made it out the other side.

the rhetoric of our day, the transplanted face is not considered human either, per the condition that it remains detached from a living body. “For the moment, the face belongs to no one,” writes Steve Fishman in the opening line of his New York Magazine profile of forty-one-year-old face transplant recipient Patrick Hardison. [21] To recognize the face as something human, it must perform its intended functions, reasons Joanna Connors in her profile of Katie Stubblefield: to “confer and confirm identity, express emotion, communicate meaning [and] perform basic functions necessary for life.”[22] The language she uses to describe what constitutes the human is painfully reminiscent of the Great War notion that mutilated veterans can become men again — human, again — if they are able to return to work. She maintains, “Faces are the body’s workaholics.”[23] The language Fishman employs further reinforces the objecthood of the yet-to-be-transplanted face, by contrasting the inactive organ with the surgeon at work. The face:

floats in a bowl of icy, hemodynamic preserving solution, paused midway on its journey from one operating room to another…A surgeon reaches his gloved hands into the blood-tinged liquid and kneads the face, draining the last of the mechanic’s blood. Then he lifts the face up to the camera, showing off his handiwork.”[24]

Lynn Johnson, Katie’s new face before surgery, for National Geographic, 2018

oes Schoeller not do the same in his portraits? His uniform approach to the medium purposefully detaches the faces of his subjects from their bodies in an effort to absolve the images of any narrative. Here lies his claim to fame: the democratization of the medium through intimate, minimalist portraits of the world’s most venerated politicians and celebrities taken the same way as images of the ordinary citizen. Schoeller’s approach brings us to the photograph’s edge, where we experience a stylized, but quasi-scientific encounter with his subjects, as the artist allegedly seeks to highlight the beauty of difference by means of a microscopic survey of the human face. When this approach is applied to face transplant recipients, however, the effect sours into perversion, enabling their objectification. By cutting out the body — the active, performative vehicle through which we assign humanness to the face — we are left with something inhuman: not a face as part of a living being, but an object that merely resembles it. By Butler’s definition, we are left with suffering.

LEFT: Katie’s “before” picture, taken by hospital staff. RIGHT: Katie’s “after” portrait, taken by Martin Schoeller for National Geographic.

While Gillies’s photographs were censored by a state apparatus that needed to send men to war, and keep them there, Schoeller’s portraits made their way into a major publication. That this is so is a sign of changing norms, changing sensitivities to images of suffering, and changing definitions of humanness. In her essay, Butler wrote that “the image that is represented signifies its admissibility into the domain of representability.”[25] In other words, only those photographs that we determine acceptable, that we allow ourselves to look at, populate our visual culture. Admittedly, Schoeller’s portraits shock less than the ones captured by Gillies, but perhaps this is the case because they were taken for viewers who have long grown accustomed so similar images (and worse), viewers who subscribed to monthly issues of National Geographic, or otherwise voluntarily clicked on a free link online. They chose to look, to project a Foucauldian medical gaze onto the likes of Katie Stubblefield in order to witness advances in medicine and to be moved emotionally. But, if Schoeller’s approach to photographing face transplant recipients was inappropriate, then where can we turn for an alternative?

The “Strange New Art” of Sgt. Weber

here was no permanent hospital for plastic surgery throughout the Mediterranean Theater during the Second World War. Provisional spaces were put up in general hospitals, the first in Bizerte, Tunisia.[26] On November 4, 1943, a man identified only as “Sgt. Weber” produced at least a dozen portraits of maxillofacial patients in one such hospital, to accompany an essay titled “Plastic Surgery for the Modern Man.”[27] Labels on the verso of each image identify the sitters by rank, name, and condition: Gunner Setherton had significant portions of his face destroyed in combat, and a hole where his left cheek should be requires immediate grafting; Private Kelley suffers from a “shell-splinter-gouged back”; Private Moswara wears a metal brace to restore his fractured jaw, while Lieutenant Jessop and Trooper Armitage are recovering from severe burns.

Sgt. Weber, portraits of maxillofacial patients, 1943

In these images, we witness a striking departure from the photographs taken by Gillies, as well as a road map to the sort of portraits National Geographic could have opted for in “What’s It Like to Have a New Face?” The origins of this departure from Gillies (and by extension, Schoeller) lie in the interventions taken by the photographer in constructing a certain kind of portrait of the plastic surgery patient.

In “Torture and the ethics of photography” Butler speculates to what degree the photographer ought to control the scene he or she means to represent. Should they “contribute to the scene? Act upon the scene? Intervene upon the scene?”[28] She maintains that while photographing is not the same as intervening, when a photographer has say over representation, the resulting images surpass mere documentation to become visual reflections.[29] Intervention, therefore, is a sign of artistic intent. In the photographs in question, we witness Weber taking remarkable care to ensure that the focus of these images is not on the injuries of his sitters, but on the sitters themselves. Men with severe facial disfigurement are carefully composed before open windows, dressed in white collared button-downs, with groomed, slicked-back hair, when not wrapped in gauze. Patients with cuts, scars, and metal braces are not photographed as close-cropped spectacles; instead, and rather unusually, their portraits are taken outside in a tree-lined grove near the hospital, in a way that displays their injury — presumably fulfilling Weber’s assignment that brought him there — but all the while reminding us that they are more than their suffering. In other words: they are human.

By the nature of his profession and the state of his field at the time, Gillies had to take before-and-after photographs. But the nature of such images inherently make them about an undepicted “third event” that took place sometime in between their making. Thus, they derive “their power from a necessary reliance on the viewer’s imagination of what happens outside the photographic frame.”[30] In Gillies’s case, they are portraits of trauma before they are portraits of the mutilated veterans, feeding into the Great War culture of aversion that dehumanized the depicted subjects. Schoeller’s portraits are often used as “after” pictures when circulated online, thereby picking up the mantle. By avoiding the before-and-after convention altogether, Weber’s series is progressive in how it photographs the facially wounded, almost certainly reflecting the miles of progress made in plastic surgery since the Great War. Witness the resemblance between one of his photographs and a recent portrait of the first African-American face transplant recipient.

LEFT: Sgt. Weber, “Pte. Dodsley (Face), (Maxiollo Facial patient), 4 November, 1943 / RIGHT: J. Kiely Jr., portrait of Robert Chelsea, 2019

eber’s skill at capturing the humanness of his subjects shows all the instincts of an artist. Even Gillies believed that his work was essentially creative, describing the field as a “strange new art.” Most mask makers were already practicing sculptors by the time they were recruited. [31] Artists and surgeons alike working during the world wars watched as mechanized warfare pushed human bodies to their limits, demanding a redefined image and concept of humanness. There is perhaps no greater example than Jacob Epstein, who in 1913 produced a plastic body supported by a drill he titled Rock Drill, a nod to industrialized labor. When it was exhibited three years later, the year of the Battle of Somme, Epstein “stripped away the drill, legs and one arm, casting the eviscerated figure in gun metal,” and rechristening it as Torso in Metal. In his words, the sculpture was a surrogate for “the armed sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankensteinian monster we have made ourselves into.” [32] Perhaps in the figure of Martin Schoeller, Epstein’s prediction came true. Although the photographer describes himself as an artist, his portraits of face transplant recipients painfully echo the images of Gillies from a century prior, and the horrors that enabled them.

Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal (from Rock Drill), 1913–1916

their letters from 1931–32, collectively published as “Why War?,” Freud and Einstein agreed that man has an inherent lust for destruction and suffering. In today’s visual space, we seem to lust for- and be desensitized to- images of violence, destruction and suffering. In a world where photographs of suffering are widely disseminated and threaten to produce the monsters that Virginia Woolf and Jacob Epstein feared we would become, what is to be done? Let us turn to Freud, if not for an answer, then for momentary comfort: the “bond of sentiment is by way of identification,” he wrote Einstein in 1932.[33] “All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play this feeling of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.” It is the responsibility of “strange new art” — in all the senses of the term — to remind us of our humanness, to hold up the mirror in which we can recognize ourselves.

For the curious:


[1] Joanna Connors, “How a Transplanted Face Transformed Katie Stubblefield’s Life,” National Geographic, September 2018. Accessed 19 December, 2019.

[2] Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Pain of Others” (First Chapter), New York Times, March 23, 2003.

[3] Sontag, “Regarding the Pain.”

[4] Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1981), 277.

[5] Freud, “Thoughts,” 277.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jane Tynan and Suzannah Biernoff, “Making and remaking the civilian soldier: The World War I Photographs of Horace Nicholls,” Journal of War & Culture Studies 5, no. 3 (September 2013): 290.

[8] Katie’s was ultimately used in the issue’s main article instead.

[9] The same goes for individuals without a subscription to National Geographic, who read the article online.

[10] Susan Sidlauskas, “The Spectacle of the Face: Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent” in Perspectives on Manet, ed. Therese Dolan (Surrey: Ashgate Press, 2012), 34.

[11] Judith Butler, “Torture and the ethics of photography,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25 (April 2007): 951.

[12] Butler, “Torture,” 954.

[13] Suzannah Biernoff, “The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain,” Social History of Medicine 24, no. 3 (February 2011): 666.

[14] Lisa Le Feuvre, “Extending Bodies,” Tate Etc. 36 (Spring 2016): 62.

[15] Tynan and Biernoff, “Making and remaking,” 287.

[16] Biernoff, “Rhetoric,” 681.

[17] Ibid 671.

[18] Tynan and Biernoff, “Making and remaking,” 287.

[19] Tynan and Biernoff, “Making and remaking,” 287.

[20] Freud, “Thoughts,” 290.

[21] Steve Fishman, “Biography of a Face,” New York Magazine, November 15, 2015. Accessed 2 Jan.

[22] Connors, “Transplanted Face.”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Fishman, “Biography.”

[25] Butler, “Torture,” 953.

[26] John Staige, M.D., “Plastic Surgery in World War I and in World War II” (presidential address to the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, Toronto, Canada, June 3, 1946), JSTOR.

[27] All images and their verso available at the Imperial War Museum online collection. I have not yet been able to locate the essay.

[28] Butler, “Torture,” 959.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Kate Palmer Albers and Jordan Baer, “Photography’s Time Zones,” in Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts, ed. Albers and Baer (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 2.

[31] Biernoff, “Rhetoric,” 677.

[32] Le Feuvre, “Extending Bodies,” 62.

[33] Einstein, Albert & Freud, Sigmund. “The Einstein-Freud correspondence (1931–1932).” Accessed 20 November, 2019.

For the even more curious:

Selected Bibliography

Albers, Kate Palmer and Jordan Baer. “Photography’s Time Zones.” In Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts, edited by Albers and Baer, 1–11. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Backstein, Richard and Anna Hinek. “War and Medicine: The Origins of Plastic Surgery.” University of Toronto Medical Journal 82, no.3 (May 2005): 217–219.

Battle, Richard. “Plastic surgery in the two world wars and in the years in between.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 71 (November 1978): 844–848.

Biernoff, Susannah. “Introduction.” In Portraits of Violence, 1–24. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.

Biernoff, Suzannah. “The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain.” Social History of Medicine 24, no. 3 (February 2011): 666–685.

Biernoff, Suzannah and Jane Tynan. “Making and remaking the civilian soldier: The World War I Photographs of Horace Nicholls.” Journal of War & Culture Studies 5, no. 3 (September 2013): 277–293.

Butler, Judith. “Torture and the ethics of photography.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25 (April 2007): 951–966.

Connors, Joanna. “How a Transplanted Face Transformed Katie Stubblefield’s Life.” National Geographic, September 2018.

Connors, Joanna and Martin Schoeller, “What’s It Like to Have a New Face? Transplant Recipients Tell Us,” National Geographic, September 2018.

Davis, John Staige, M.D. “Plastic Surgery in World War I and in World War II” (presidential address to the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, Toronto, Canada, June 3, 1946), JSTOR.

Einstein, Albert & Freud, Sigmund. “The Einstein-Freud correspondence (1931–1932).” Accessed 20 November, 2019.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of a Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, translated by Smith, A.M. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

Freud, Sigmund. “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. Translated and edited by James Strachey, 275–300. London: Hogarth, 1981.

Fishman, Steve. “Biography of a Face.” New York Magazine, November 15, 2015. Accessed 2 Jan. 2020.

Gillies, Harold. Plastic Surgery of the Face. Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1920.

Lantieri, Laurent A. “Face Transplant: Learning from the Past, Facing the Future.”

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 155, no. 1 (March 2011): 23–28.

Le Feuvre, Lisa. “Extending Bodies,” Tate Etc. 36 (Spring 2016): 62–67.

Sidlauskas, Susan. “The Spectacle of the Face: Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent.” In Perspectives on Manet, edited by Therese Dolan, 29–48. Surrey: Ashgate Press, 2012,

Siemionow, Maria. “The decade of face transplant outcomes.” J Mater Sci: Mater Med 28, no. 5 (May 2017): 64.

Sontag, Susan. “Regarding the Pain of Others” (First Chapter). New York Times, March 23, 2003

Art, Humor, Online Dating, and the Humorous Art of Online Dating.