The wreckage of a fiery California bus crash that killed ten and injured dozens of others was still smoldering just after midnight on Friday when 17-year-old survivor Jonathan Gutierrez SnapChatted a sickbed selfie to a handful of friends. Almost immediately the photo went public, and then viral, all of which—predictably—ignited a shitstorm around the internet.
"Like the Funeral Selfiebefore it, the Hospital Selfie exposes a massive generational divide about the etiquette of self-expression and oversharing, especially in the face of disaster," Joe Coscarelliopined for New York magazine, while commenters called it "emotionally stunted" and "fucking stupid."
But actually, the gravely ill and gruesomely injured post self-portraits far more graphic than Gutierrez's all the time. Though not as popular as #yolo or #tbt, hashtags like #piccline, #dialysis, #chemo and #amputee each turn up thousands of results, most of them geotagged to hospitals and clinics. While the comparison to funeral selfies is tempting, there's evidence to suggest something very different is happening here.
"There's a long history of people who are sick making images of themselves to make sense of their experiences," said Professor Susan Bell, a sociologist who teaches illness narratives at Bowdoin College and argues that trauma selfies may be more closely related to the pathology self-portraits of artists like Jo Spence or Frida Kahlo than their oversharing coevals. "I think there's something about having that image or having the object and putting it out there that confronts people, that connects and disrupts in a way that's very different than words."
Patients who post medically explicit snaps of themselves on social media often describe Instagram as a kind of opiate, one that amputee Libby Schaffer uses to ease her phantom limb pain and brain tumor survivor Noël Day Bishoptreats like group therapy. For Alex Blaszczuk, paralyzed from the chest down in a car wreck, posting her trauma online is nothing short of an exorcism.
"The more I repeat it the less real it becomes," the third-year Columbia University law student and Google Glass explorer said of sharing her C5 complete spinal cord injury and its aftermath on social media. "The idea of sharing trauma, at least for me, is not so much to elicit anything back but just to get it out of me."
When she's not in class, the 26-year-old can be found #swaggerjackingstephenhawkingon Twitter and documenting her daily life on Flickr and YouTube. Though she said her disability is always the first thing strangers see, Blaszcuk argued that narrating her new body in pictures and video and to share those reflections on social platforms helps her define herself beyond her wheelchair.
"There's this 'supercrip' narrative: despite injury you are able to do everything and so much more than just the average person, so you're no longer a person, you're someone who did something despite or because of your injury," Blaszcuk said. "This narrative of my mobility impairment somehow making my life a war zone is highly problematic … I don't assume that [peers] have a quote unquote constant struggle. I assume they're dealing with their shit and I'm dealing with mine."
It's just the opposite for Day Bishop, whose epilepsy is all but invisible most of the time. Her hospital selfies are intended to call attention to the same things Blaszcuk's self-portraits often elide. In posts that attract scores of comments on Instagram and Facebook, the focus is on the response.
"With medical stuff, people don't know how to talk about it and don't know how to start the conversation," she explained. "Putting it out there [on social media] really helps. It's really hard to, but it really helps."
The New York-based filmmaker and actress said Instagram in particular has introduced her to an entire network of fellow patients, one she's come to rely on for medical information and emotional support since having her tumor removed in 2012.
"When I was on Instagram, I would click on different hashtags of #brainsurgery or #craniotomy and see so many other people's pictures of their scars. It was so cool," Day Bishop said. "Just typing in a Google search on the Internet, that's kind of what I was looking for. I was looking for affirmation from somebody else."
As with Blaszcuk, whose credits Google Glass with returning her sense of aesthetic independence and facilitating previously foreclosed modes of self-expression, Day Bishop sees Instagram as intrinsic to her health and wellbeing.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," she confessed of her illness. " is such a new thing…I feel lucky that I was able to have that resource going through this."
Schaffer, 32, also leans on social media for support, though of a slightly different shade. For her, seeing others draw strength from selfies of her stump renewed her sense of optimism in the difficult months after her left leg was amputated. She suffers from Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, an inflammatory disorder that was set off when she broke her left heel at age six and transformed her left leg into a swollen, useless appendage that caused her constant pain. She told me that the graphic images she posts online draw much needed attention to the rare and debilitating disease that's affected her life for nearly three decades.
"I get emails on a daily basis from people all over the world," Schaffer said. "I've become an inspiration for them."
Recently, her online presence helped her heal from another medical trauma: Since her surgery in September, Schaffer said she's turned to Instagram to ease her "phantom limb pain," a complex neurological phenomenon that affects up to 80 percent of amputees, creating uncomfortable sensations where the limb used to be.
"When I take pictures and I see 'oh, I don't have a leg,' I recognize that I don't have the leg, and it helps with the pain," she said. "Having other people who've gone through it say, 'You look good, you're doing great, your leg looks healthy,' … you sit back and think, I lost my leg months ago, but I'm still here."
Although she's often the object of Internet trolls, Libby said she both functions indispensable.
"Now that my leg's gone, I get a lot of kids going 'mommy, she doesn't have a leg.' The parents overeat and say, 'no, don't do that.' But I say let them do that ,,, I try to make an example of myself," Schaffer said. "That's a bit part of the whole sharing online … if you want to stare, at least ask somebody. Don't make assumptions before you know anything."
Sick people will keep posting. The volume of images and videos alone suggests that trauma selfies are no more likely to fade than Frida Kahlo's gruesome self-portraits of sixty years ago. It's able-bodied people who angst over public images of the infirm, dismissing them as avatars of social media's endemic narcissism. There are more than 400,000 millennials living with disabilities in America alone, with an untold number sharing their lives on Instagram et al. To those on the other side of the lens, graphic images are a way of forcing others to confront a reality most would rather not: that while the body may break, life limps on, just as complex and human as it was before.
"They're all constructed in one way or another," Dr. Bell said of the images. "One of the effects of doing this is to call people out, to say 'pay attention!' Another is to say, 'I'm here, where are you?' It's a way of forming community among fellow sufferers, which also has a long history of occurring in different forms or mediums."
Blaszcuk the law student adopts a similarly philosophical approach to her own trauma, citing French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's three orders—the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real—to explain how she internalizes a loss that was both instantaneous and unimaginable before it happened to her.
"You're choosing to kind of say, this image or this text or this video, this is where I'm boxing in this experience," Blaszcuk said. "Maybe not as tidy as I'd like it, but it's a little neater, a little tidier than this monster that it is. Especially if I can make someone laugh about it, and then I laugh about it, then it's just a huge relief."