When someone tells us they are in love, our own memories of love come to mind. These impressions can allow us to understand, to a certain extent, that feeling. We’ve felt it, in some way or another.
But what happens when someone is in physical pain? Can we understand and truly feel their pain? Pain is such an intensely personal experience, and it’s easy to think that others could not possibly understand the pain you’re feeling. After all, it’s your pain. And talking about pain can also be taboo — a perceived weakness that can be accompanied by public and private shame.
Freelance photographer Justin J Wee experienced this shame firsthand. He suffers from chronic back pain.
“I don’t like disclosing it to people,” Wee says, “especially in a professional setting, because I never want them to think that my ability to take photos will be hampered. The truth is, though, that after carrying all my gear with me, I arrive at most of my shoots with a higher-than-average amount of pain.”
As Wee struggled with his own physical battles, he realized that he wasn’t talking about them with his friends — many of whom were also experiencing pain of their own.
“I felt like I never really knew how to best help my friends and vice versa,” he says. “I knew that we were all downplaying the things we were experiencing, never wanting to have others worry, never wanting to be a burden, only wanting to take the time to process it ourselves and only ever in the silence of solitude.”
He longed to be there for his friends in pain and create a space where he could say: “I hear you, and I am ready to hold you when you need me.”
That was how Wee’s photo series How I Hurt took root.
He put a call-out on Instagram seeking stories of chronic pain from his friends. Wee wanted details — like how pain moved through their bodies, if it gained in intensity or was more sudden and sharp, how they coped.
Then he conceptualized each pain through everyday objects. For chronic back pain, for example, he used ice and baby oil swirled with red food coloring. Wee comes from a food photography background, so food-related items were the ones he reached out to first.
In How I Hurt, each still life represents a specific pain with a description from the sufferer. The everyday objects in the photos seem to really become the joints, brain cells and backbones they’re supposed to depict, and the images convey their intention: an honest and visceral experience of pain.
They also suggest the many dimensions of life with chronic pain, like confusion, disappointment and chaos.
“While I knew I could depend on certain objects to evoke feelings of sharpness, I wanted to focus more on creating scenes that took viewers through my subject’s stories,” he says.
Through photographs, we can see, interpret and perhaps even feel the pain of others. Sometimes, we aren’t ready to take in hard-to-look-at photos. For those images, they can just exist in the world until we’re ready to take them in.
They feel as if they appear in front of us — just like chronic pain can seem to suddenly surface in our lives.
The result is a narrative of still lifes that evoke emotions and pose a certain degree of grace and softness. How I Hurt reminds us that pain is both a human and a universal thing after all.