The Artist as the I and those portrayed as the Thou

The artist as ethicist and therapist for selves and communities copying with trauma, danger and grief

Thanks to the catalysis of the American Bioethics & Culture Institute, Facing History’s initiative, and many meaningful conversations with friends, colleagues, family and patients who have contributed to the preparation for my June 17th, 2017 Gallery talk at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts [facebook] on massive psychic trauma, grief, resistance, resilience, creativity, ethics and art.  These themes are explored via a focus on the photographs of the Lodz Ghetto by Henryk Ross.  Since my own parents served in the Fekalists, a vital, yet now almost forgotten hub of the nonviolent resistance to dehumanization and extermination that Henryk Ross photographed, I have taken more time to understand what became an I-thou relationship between the photographer and the people he photographed.  Thus the talk is part of a milestone in the ABCI project of understanding the relationship between bioethics and culture in the midst of life and when suffering or even when facing impending death

Among the many insights I continue to learn from studying the Shoah is the human capacity to endure, persevere, create and choose goodness even in the midst of massive psychic trauma, grief and existential threat.  In our exploration of extreme states and extraordinary circumstances we can learn much that is otherwise obscure about ordinary life, trauma, grief, loss and our capacity to choose between good and evil, and be resilient and creative both in the midst of life and when facing death.

Thus the camera today can also become a creative, artistic, therapeutic, mental health empowering instrument, even as it did in a special manner in the midst of the Shoah.  Photography can establish an I-thou relationship to share and help both the photographer and those photographed bear with dignity the pain of  grief and the horror of humiliation and oblivion in the midst of traumatic losses that haunt us in the everyday.

When patients who have been traumatized and are suffering deep grief ask me to look at photographs they have taken with their cell phones I watch and listen. A fragile elderly child survivor of the Shoah, now facing more losses of youthful beauty, vigor and family shares with  me photographs of the great beauty that she was as a young adolescent.  I thank her for feeling safe enough to share these with me and for the beauty of her continued curiosity no matter the entropy.  This deepens our ability to explore together what she fears most and her mature beauty shines forth. And when an adolescent, traumatized as a young child by a psychotic parent, brings to me a photograph of the dog he loves to show how beautifully and peacefully the animal sleeps, I once again first thank and then admire this act of sharing what he loves, the beauty of peace; and then we explore what he fears loosing.

I use these insights from the art of those who can seek beauty in extreme states, in my own teaching of medical students, physicians in training and colleagues in various settings.  These range from our own Harvard Psychiatry Grand Rounds to invited lectures as when I received the invitation to give the Flexner Distinguished Lecture at Vanderbilt Medical School.  In the process I continue to learn along with my colleagues and my patients of the human capacity to seek beauty and choose goodness no matter the extremity of suffering.

I hope you will join me as I explore these themes.