Tamara Santibañez: From what I know about your work so far, you have a chronic illness and that’s the main theme in the work featured in this book. Can you give me a little bit of background about your experience with illness?
Caroline Schub: I was diagnosed when I was ten with my illness and I feel like that age is on the cusp. You’re still living your life as a child but then you see the future as an adult. You understand that your body is supposed to change because adulthood becomes the end result. So I was diagnosed and I felt completely trapped in my body- I wasn’t growing. I was stuck in this body that didn’t belong to me and I didn’t have any true ideas about myself as connected to my form. I had to have a tube put into my stomach and it remained there for years. Touch, function, the basic elements including eating felt strange and technical. I didn’t understand what I felt contained in, because I wasn’t in my body... I was living outside of it in some way. I originally started taking self-portraits when I was younger because I would always be in my house and I isolated myself.
T: So did you see the self portraiture as a form of escapism? Or did you see it as a way to ground yourself and reconnect with your body?
C: At first for me it became escapism, but then slowly over the years as I started to recognize my body a little bit more it became a form of self-preservation and a way to continue to familiarize myself with my body- it does change, it does grow, you gain weight, you lose weight. It’s a process, living in a body. When I think about the images and I think about them as physical things…it’s weird, I can handle them, I can look back at them and look into the eyes of someone that is in fact me. I realized that the desire to do a specific action in a photograph was connected to prominent sensations I experienced throughout treatment and diagnosis. I wanted to solidify the reality of what I felt.
T: So recalling it is a way to simultaneously document and reexperience and process it. There is also a lot of recurring imagery that I see in your work as far as militaristic themes, the use of guns and of uniforms.
C: When I started this project in my head I was going to create the world that I see, that doesn’t have any boundaries and no one else exists in it. There’s no face other than mine that you can recognize and I was thinking of these different characters for myself. I could be in multiple places at once and serve different roles. I also grew up with hunting and weaponry. I definitely have this respect for weapons in general. I understand the power that they have and the power that they can take away. So the symbol of a gun-it naturally has strong associations, but you can take away its power by photographing it. It just lays kind of dormant. I guess using it almost like an anagram. You associate the gun with death, with the ability to fire at any moment. But when it lays suspended in time can it accurately do its job? Or the contrast of it as such a dominantly male symbol with my body which can be anatomically identified as female. It’s a balancing act of what is truth and perception. Visually you are using the same letters, but when jumbled they mean different things.
T: It is a very loaded symbol visually and it’s striking in the ways you’ve used it, especially the ones that you staged. There are a few that you staged with weapons or tools in them- depending on how you want to perceive them. The ones with the axes and hatchets and the one with the guns- this is an image I want to know more about. How do you see using the hatchet as a visual tool or as a symbol?
C: I took that photograph after a specific visit to the doctors and it brought me back to a time where I was feeling sick, and trying not to get in that mentality of “I’m a sick person.” I often am burdened by how illness is stigmatized. I started doing that series on my childhood mattress and these tools became dormant either through suspension or rendering them as something completely different than what they are. You don’t know if I’ve actually handled that or if I walked into that or if that’s just the way it’s supposed to be in the room. It’s like who came first, me or the hatchet. For me, it exists almost like a line in a poem.
T: I’m seeing it as a tool in this scenario versus seeing it as an instrument of violence. It makes me consider the body differently because I’m viewing it almost as a natural landform. I’m imagining a tree or chopping wood and the axe interacting with the body less as a human being and more as a physical barrier. I also really like the photographs with the meat in them. Can you talk to me a little bit about your use of physical artifacts or physical remnants- flesh, pig skin, hair, blood, etc?
C: For me I think of, again, the idea of self-preservation and being able to hold an object that represents yourself in your hands. Through photography I want to create this self portrait, but with aspects of my aesthetic physical self being in it and without it being in it. I thought about things that can represent my DNA. Things that automatically humans would associate as DNA because it reminds you of anatomical things. Then appropriating something from another photograph or using an object to represent myself and putting them together. Almost thinking of my body broken down and on a table or on a wall that someone is hammering…
T: Some of these images are from performances that you’ve done or videos that you’ve made.
C: I’ve recently started doing the video performance stuff. I don’t know if I could ever do live performance because I’m too nervous around others, but it’s essentially setting up the scenario the same way I would take a photograph. When I take a photograph, especially the ones of my body- the self portraits that you identify as me- I’m usually sitting there for long periods of time. I use a 4x5 camera, which for me allows for a slow meditative workflow. I often spend hours making one image. It’s in itself like a performance that only I recognize because I’m the one taking the picture. With video I wanted to document that process and see the movements that I make while being able to see it in a different type of time frame.
T: Do you show the videos or do you show stills from the videos?
C: For the book I’m doing the stills, but I do want the opportunity to show the videos.
T: What other actions have you performed for photographing yourself? Do you do a lot of endurance type of staging?
C: The two where I was on the mattress that I put together were definitely endurance because- you can’t really tell, but my hips are raised fully up in there. So I was positioned there for a really long time. It could take me half an hour or more to take a photograph, so when I am in a position like that then I am just completely lifeless and have very limited movements.
T: What was this one that the other video stills are from?
C: I wanted to have the sensation of being wrapped tightly and engage with a memory of being bandaged after a procedure. I called it “How to Dress a Wound” and I wrapped my head to torso in ace bandage. At the end of the video I set up a table with cinderblocks and I have a knife and I’m balancing my chin on the knife, and then I cut the bandages off. For a while I was practicing balancing my chin on a knife completely vertically because I wanted to understand the point of your body and the limits that you have, knowing that if you move a certain way it can be dangerous, but if you remain calm and meditative…
T: And what that threshold is. Is a lot of what you do driven by curiosity as to the capability of your own body?
C: Definitely. I think at first going back to that escapism and just learning about my body- because I’ve been working on this project for so long it progressed into me just wanting to understand some of the limits and threshold and experience specific things. I have the ability to do that through these set ups.
T: Does that correlate with wellness in a way? Being more physically capable or in a more stable place physically? It enables you to challenge yourself in different ways?
C: I haven’t really thought about that, but I do think that’s true. When I had the tube in my stomach, I remember a shirt getting caught on the tube and feeling that tugging sensation. It made me want to be more precious about my body because it hurt so badly and sometimes I still feel the tube in my stomach, like a phantom. when I was experiencing a lot of body trauma I was definitely more cautious in that and I think scared to do certain things. I had an association with pain and it being medical. That was the feeling that I had with my body. Outside of that I was nothing and I almost didn’t want to feel anything if I didn’t have to.
T: It sounds like you had a lot of pain inflicted on you unwillingly. Do you inflict pain on yourself through any of these actions and performances? Obviously there’s endurance and discomfort, but is intentional pain infliction something that you use for any of these?
C: Definitely with some of them. I wouldn’t say with all, sometimes I use certain symbols to represent that memory of pain that I have, but sometimes it’s a balancing act of both.
T: It seems challenging to try to engage with it when you have a history of it.
C: When it’s in my mind I do, but I don’t force myself to do something just for the sake of taking the photo.
T: What is the significance for you of isolating your surroundings or making yourself the sole human figure in your work?
C: It is a combination of me isolating myself and not wanting to interact with the world, but also finding myself in a position of confinement and wanting to visually create the world that I lived in. Not have any sense of time or place- it could be anywhere. The only thing that will change is- because this is an ongoing series and I’m going to continue to document myself for as long as I can- that you’ll see is my physical change within the surroundings unless something crazy happens.
I never chose this body that I am in, a sick body. What is healthy? I don't know because I am diagnosable. Like you, I have also felt pain. What does it mean to survive? Who controls my survival? My doctor writes that I am a woman, but what he means is that I am a sick woman. How am I to survive in a society not meant for the "sick body"? I am medicated enough to suppress my symptoms, but my illness is a mark on my body that will never leave. What happens if I can't get the sole medication that dictates my health? These are things that impregnate my brain daily. Not many people know of my illness, but this book and this interview are both testaments. Many people have said to me, "you don't look sick". What does it mean to look sick? Again, I don’t know. Both visible / invisible illness surround us in many forms and are real. I'm scared not only for myself, but for other humans who are currently in this situation or will be in the future; for other humans who have a suspicion about their body but don't know the vocabulary or have the support to receive care. I'm scared because the government determines my survival and, in an instant, can decide to take it all away.