Exhibitions: The Surreal Art of the Medical Actor

By David Schonauer   Thursday January 21, 2016

Life and death hangs in the balance of Corinne May Botz’s new photos.

The Brooklyn-based photographer’s series “Bedside Manner,” which is on view at the Benrubi Gallery  in New York City through Feb. 6, depicts medical dramas that are ersatz but not without emotion. The images show medical actors who are hired to perform the roles of patients suffering from various illnesses in order to train medical students in the thoughtful caring of patients.

Working in eight medical schools in New York City — including the New York Simulation Center for the Health Sciences, Weill Cornell Medicine and Albert Einstein College of Medicine — Botz photographed the so-called “standardized patients” through two-way mirrors in rooms where the interaction between the actors and a doctors-in-training are studied and recorded, notes the New Yorker. In Botz’s compositions, the windows perform the function of theatrical stages: We see the actors performing, sometimes with props, including a plastic mannequin on life support (above). Another actor portrays an Ebola patient, while still another suffers from postpartum hemorrhaging.

Botz first learned of the medical actors in 2011 and spent three years working on the project. “I was fascinated by the notion of playing sick,” she tells Wired. “I was sick a lot as a child and, as a result, I hated going to the doctor. So the concept of being paid to simulate a patient and the fact that SPs provide feedback to medical students struck me as empowering and pointed to the agency and subjectivity of the patient.”

To some degree, viewing the scenarios being played out is like watching a medical TV show. But here the playacting is about more than entertainment, and that gives the pictures a surreal texture. “The important thing about simulation is that imagination, or suspension of disbelief, is required,” Botz says. “Pretending to be a doctor is not easy for some, but life requires a certain amount of pretending to be what one is not. As a young resident, you must convince a patient you are more competent than you feel.”

Botz went down a similar road with her earlier series “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” which, notes the New Yorker, featured pictures of detailed miniature crime-scene dioramas from the 1940s and 1950s — depictions of homicides, suicides, and grisly accidents used as forensics-training tools for policemen. The work, Botz said, was meant to cause viewers to “lose their sense of proportion and experience the large in the small.”

Though the scenes in the new series are clearly unreal, they capture a sense of real drama, which is disconcerting. Just as the medical actors create empathy in the students they deal with, the pictures manage to produce empathy in viewers. Botz, notes the New Yorker, reveals how “simulated feelings can mirror and expose the real.”


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