Out of Order

Artist Statement

Out of Order arose out of happenstance. Almost a decade ago, I suffered a severe and long lasting concussion. Brain injuries are one of the strangest medical problems we can experience. On the outside, to those who might meet someone with a traumatic brain injury, it can be completely invisible. On the inside, with the headaches, light sensitivity, brain fog and countless other symptoms, it’s anything but.

The idea for the series came to me out of this experience. It is an attempt, through a visual medium, to make an invisible injury visible through photo composites.  I want to visually express how a brain injury feels in hopes that this helps people better understand my experiences and those of the many people who have invisible disabilities. I also hope it helps create more empathy and reduces bias.

My concussion has had a silver lining in that it led to my interest in photography, and consequently to this exhibit. In the early days of my injury, when I was so profoundly debilitated I couldn’t resume school, I started taking photographs to express myself. I found joy in capturing images and was intrigued by the artistic potential photography offered.

One of the most difficult aspects of living with a brain injury is navigating relationships and interacting with others. Early on after my injury I learned what almost everyone with an invisible disability or chronic health problem already knows. Many people are critical and dismissive of disabilities or injuries that can’t be seen. These injuries are definitely not obvious to others, like having a bandaged head or hobbling with a crutch.

My symptoms have slowly been improving, although a return to somewhat better health has been a multi-year process. Still, over all these years, many people couldn’t picture how severe my injury was because, of course, it was completely invisible to them.

Hence these photos. I used Photoshop to create the images. The photos were taken on Toronto Island, the great North Coast of Lake Superior, and on Canada’s southernmost inhabited spec of land, Pelee Island. One is in the city’s subway system.  While most of the photos are self-portraits, I want to thank my sister Charlotte for graciously participating in this difficult but rewarding artistic project. I would also like to thank the Ontario Arts Council for its funding and support.

As you’ll see in many of the images, I tried to create, through visual means, some of the feelings of pain and mental fogginess that are the hallmarks of this injury. In Immobilized, I want to show how my life was frozen while others moved on, represented by blurs around me.  Searching for Silver Linings, one of the Pelee Island photographs, illustrates a feeling I had early on when I tried desperately to find something I could learn and take away from this terrible experience. Friendly Fire 1 and 2 are about well meaning offers of health advice that often aren’t very helpful. With Chaos I am trying to show how completely overwhelming it can feel when exposed to noise, light or any other stimulus.  I placed that feeling in the top of my head where I have a constant headache.

I hope you enjoy Out of Order as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Hannah Mittelstaedt