Freaks, circus performers – early representations

It has been pointed out (Barnes 2003) that people with ‘perceived abnormalities’ have provided a source of entertainment to non-disabled people throughout history, from blind musicians in ancient Egypt and ‘deformed slaves’ as entertainers in Greece and Rome, through the court jesters and fools of mediaeval Europe, right up to the freak shows and exhibitions of the industrial era.

Our looking at the diseased and disabled, as well as at correctional processes of healing, is really just a voyeurism of sorts. These images came up in a Facebook notification as I was working on my logbook:

Attitudes have thankfully moved on from the ways that disabled people were viewed in the past (just how much is a matter for debate). In the tradition of the Elephant Man, disabled people were often ’employed’ as sideshow exhibits in travelling circuses. How much of this was enforced ‘slavery’ and how much was resignation and an attempt at empowerment (at least financial independence) is the subject of debate (“after all, what else could the poor folk do?”). At the same time, renowned photographers have made points through photographing disabled people: from Paul Strand’s now iconic image of the blind woman (peddler? beggar?) through to Arbus’s images of the physically deformed and ‘mentally retarded’. It seems to me there are two main positions, that of inspiring shock (and you thought you had it bad – take a look at this!) and that of evoking pity (charity); as Lennard Davis put it, the viewer “gives thanks for not being disabled (as in ‘I cried that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet’)” (1995, p2).

“Contemple-les, mon âme; ils sont vraiment affreux!” Baudelaire, Les Aveugles, Les Fleurs du Mal, 1861

What was Strand’s point? We see the woman, she doesn’t see us. She never will see the captured image. Her fate is written in black and white and hung around her neck, as if it is her burden. The sign echoes (explains, captions) the signified; the woman is universal – representing all blind people. Interestingly enough, this is one of the images that Strand allegedly took using his trick 90 degree angle lens. Why? After all, the woman could not see him. I think the reason lies more in the conscience of the photographer, or at least in the impression he was making among the public who could see that he was making a ‘spectacle’ of a defenceless woman. Obviously he did not ask the woman for permission to shoot her. However, our assumptions about the subject seem to eclipse those about the photographer or his intention – and this is a matter of concern. What is interesting is how this image has had its currency altered through the ages. I don’t think Strand would be able to get away with such an image these days. Neither would Arbus. But is that because attitudes have changed or that politics have?

It has been noted that representations of the diseased or infirm have throughout history been closely linked to the abject, and are often viewed with a strange mixture of fear and fascination (Tembeck 2008, p 87). In a way they would seem to satisfy the same morbid curiosity that compels us to look at images of horror, or makes traffic slow down when there is an accident (so-called rubbernecking), what Elkins (2013) terms a “toxic
mixture” of the pleasure gained from gaping and the feelings of guilt about that pleasure.


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