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Visual Self Harm: Images I Don’t Want to See


I found an image that I don’t want to see. Too familiar, and so, too hurtful. But as the Internet meme jokes, “What has been seen can’t be unseen.” In that context, such images are considered shocking, graphic, violent. The image I refer to, however, is far removed from any of these labels. But for me, there it is, that Punctum that Barthes spoke of. As I write, Google Chrome suggests the correct spelling is ‘puncture’ — how appropriate.

A source of what could be considered ’emotional pain’, and I can only speak for myself, comes from the lack of answers to unspoken questions. And this is exactly what hurts about this image. Questions that conflictingly, I don’t want to ask, and I don’t want to care about the answers. Yet I’m continually driven by the lack of answers. Perhaps if I had the answers, I wouldn’t care, but if I didn’t care, I’d feel nothing. I care, because I feel.

What does the image become then? Torturous, no, (in this case, such a word being too extreme) but rather, frustrating. Frustration driven by myself, and so self inflicting, serving as a form of what I would call ‘visual self-harm’.

As a recovering self-harmer (In this context, I refer to the deliberate means of self-harm as an act of cutting) has to ‘look’ and ‘see’ their scars, so too, I have to ‘look’ and ‘see’ this image as, after all, ‘what has been seen can’t be unseen’. The scar it leaves not physical, but rather it remains within the matter of the brain – beyond what an MRI scan could visually represent, beyond the understanding of neuroscience – so only I alone, can attest to the existence of such a scar.

A self-harmer can cease the act of self-harming, but I can not cease the act of either looking or seeing. Were I to be as extreme as to rip out my physical eye, the visual scar within memory remains. Hence my skepticism with regards to, for example, Shapiro’s Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy.

To be scarred by something visual, the act of ‘forgetting’ or ‘moving on’ from such an image, seems far more complex. An ex-self-harmer could wear certain clothes to hide a scar, from themselves or from others, offering the luxury of choice, and therefore, a degree of control. What choice, what control, do I have, as a ‘visual self-harmer?’ We could consider that I ‘found’ this image, that is, I stumbled upon its existence perchance. To offer a solution such as to never ‘look’ at or ‘see’ an image again is entirely unrealistic.

One could perhaps say to a drug abuser for example, that they should remove themselves from an environment where drugs are prevalent, one can not suggest to a ‘visual self-harmer’, to simply remove themselves from an entirely visual world. With this in mind, what possible solution can I offer myself? I will always look, and so I will always see.

Even if I were to cease searching for images, I will always look at images, and I will always see images, this is wholly unavoidable. Were I to, as previously suggested, rip out my physical eye, I will always be left with the eye deep within my brain at both the conscious and subconscious level. At the absolute extreme, one could conclude that the only solution, is the ultimate one; to destroy the brain, that is, suicide. I have no desire for this, my will to live too strong. I enjoy the experience of being alive far too much.

The image, it seems, is therefore destined to forever remain. However, I find myself experiencing a strange respect for the frustration that it brings. It confirms to me, the existence of self, of empathy, of love, of hurt, of pain, of joy, of suffering, of sadness, of happiness, of what it is to be human. To live, to breathe, to exist, to be.

About the author: Danny Day is a photographer based in the UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Day graduated from the Cleveland College of Art and Design with a degree in photography. You can find more of his work and writing on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.