These Haunting Photos Were Inspired by a Near-Death Experience

These Haunting Photos Were Inspired by a Near-Death Experience

When a car crash left her unable to speak, Cig Harvey used photography to examine life's miracles and misfortunes.
March 30, 2018, 1:58pm

Women are overlooked far too often in photography. How can we continue to combat this erasure? My answer is this column, “Woman Seeing Woman.” While it’s just the start of solving this problem, I, a female writer and photographer, hope to celebrate the astoundingly powerful female voices we have in photography by offering a glimpse into their work.

It's been well documented that a brush with death can reframe a person's relationship with life. When a car crash left photographer Cig Harvey unable to speak for several weeks, she turned to her art to make sense of life and the human experience. Harvey's most recent book, You an Orchestra You a Bomb, recalls in sprightly color and inky darkness the shortness of our time on earth. Through photographs and text, the book both celebrates and mourns the fleeting nature of existence. "Underneath thin skin, amongst saliva, organs, and bone, we are orchestras,” Harvey writes. "But open our mouths, deep down between tears, nerves, and gristle, we are bombs."


As I paged through the book, I felt myself heave sighs. The back of my throat constricted, not out of frustration, but rather to suppress tears. Harvey's fear of losing the things most important to her—family, love, expression—runs through the book with such force that her anxieties become the reader's as well. "What would a life without these be?" the book asked, and I felt my throat tighten even more.

An accomplished fine art photographer, Harvey’s work appears in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House, among others. You An Orchestra You A Bomb is her third book, preceded by 2012’s You Look at Me Like an Emergencywhich was named one of Photo District News's (PDN) Best Books of the Year and sold out in each of its printings—and 2015’s Gardening at Nightwhich received praise in Vogue, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more.

In another context, photographs of a young woman blowing bubblegum or a wall covered in paper cranes might simply seem pretty. But Harvey's placement of these images in her book was purposeful. By viewing these normal moments through Harvey's eyes, we understand how she defines being alive: with dentures in a glass, a lone Christmas lawn ornament against charcoal clouds, a child peering out the back windshield of a red truck.

Harvey said each photo is a contrast between the darkness of the world outside—the misery of the news cycle, the struggles of interior life—and the way a child sees the world—all brightness and glitter, curiosity, and wonder. Each sunny picture has a shadowy counterpoint. The contrast seems to say, "This is what I have," and "This is how it almost disappeared."

“We’re dealing with this minutiae of time and talking about these really grand ideas of the business of being human,” Harvey said. Much of her work is concerned with the nature of relationships, the fragility of existence, the general experience of being human.

Harvey is occasionally categorized as a “mother photographer,” a description she finds pigeonholing and inaccurate. While her daughter Scout does appear in her work, if you look at You An Orchestra You A Bomb, Scout serves as a challenging metaphor for what Harvey stands to lose.

“I feel sometimes frustrated about being asked about the role of a mother—of being a woman and a mother—which are two completely separate things. And not because it doesn’t play a role in my life, but it’s just one part of who I am as a human and an artist,” she said. She acknowledged that there is an inherently feminine quality to her work, and when she’s addressed via email as “Mr. Harvey,” which frequently happens, she is shocked that strangers don't realize she's a woman. But even so, her work is first and foremost about humanity.

Currently, Harvey is starting work on a new project, in which she deconstructs the physicality of a gasp and harnesses the movement in photographs. This curiosity about our involuntary reactions stemmed from her experience assembling You An Orchestra You A Bomb. After the accident, Harvey said she only felt safe in the woods, and one day she stumbled upon a patch of bluebell flowers that took her breath away. She began to explore whether intellect and emotion are stored in the brain or are, in fact, more corporeal. “We store memory in our bodies,” she said. “We gasp when something’s beautiful as well as when something’s terrible.”

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