Scars and Self-Portraiture – Agata Cardoso

Agata Cardoso’s photographs hold back nothing and, therefore, shock. This shock is not, however, the sort that gets people going, excites them, or makes them feel they’ve found something new, cool. Rather, it seems to scare, to upset; there is nothing artificial, no distractions from the subject matter. Just images that depict darkness and violence.

This has had effected Agata’s since leaving university. ‘After I graduated, there didn’t seem to be a space for me. I had a few lab jobs, but I found myself moving away from what the photographic industry expects in subject matter, in theory and so on. Instead I was cultivating my own language and technique, liberating myself really, and trying to escape the celebration of the banal.’

And while exploration is praiseworthy, exciting, it often leads to exclusions. ‘In 2013 another photographer and I secured a grant to promote an exhibition on the London Underground, as part of Art Below. My image, which depicted a woman, who has survived breast cancer, covering her mastectomy scars with her hands, was rejected. We appealed, and won, but were told that if five members of the public complained the image would be taken down.’

This is disheartening: an image depicting physical scars from a disease we valorize being rejected because it, well, shows the reality of said disease. ‘I’ve literally stopped entering any sort of art & photography competitions in the UK, because rejections for these reasons – rather than, say, aesthetic grounds, or because of the quality of my work – are so common. It’s impossible for me to get any exposure.’

This is a problem with art generally, a trend toward safeness – epitomized by the gigantic shift in photography toward fashion. ‘My work cannot be marketed, and it’s not entertaining – it’s painful. I demand critical thought from my subjects, and this depth – in my experience – freaks people out.’

Oh, and there’s another gigantic issue: ‘the hypocrisy and sexism regarding female nudity.’ The situation where it’s fine for men (mainly) to spread their legs and page three on the tube, and frightening for a breast cancer survivor to show her scars.

Sadly the response to her work has not been limited to rejection. ‘In extreme cases, I’ve been the victim of harassment and abuse: strangers making personal attacks, certain ‘feminist’ blogs and publications, calling my work – and me – ‘un-feminist’ and degrading. I’ve upset a lot of people.’

At the end of the day, does this matter – is it the point. I don’t think so. ‘I’ve developed a language and a practice that I care a great deal about. Every images carries part of me, and a deep message. I’ve sold about three photos in the last ten years, and this doesn’t matter, means nothing.’

Agata’s most recent work has been focused on self-portraiture, highlighting and distorting her body, its history and the perceptions of others. ‘I’m very open about my scarring, I don’t feel ashamed and I accept that they’re part of my experience.’ However, as ever, it’s the opinion of the viewer that’s – if not surprising – sad. ‘The irony, then, is that though I’m fine, the viewer isn’t. Their reactions usually manifests itself in repulsion, concern, confusion and even anger.’

Why? ‘Because the viewer’s not used to being confronted with a devious body, that’s not confined by expectations of the female form. And this is fascinating: it’s almost as if my own self confidence, my choice to parade my body as I wish, is really, deeply frightening. Maybe it’s because they can’t possibly identify with me, and because of this I somehow deserve punishment.

‘Because bodies like mine are to be hidden.’

– Jago Rackham.

Agata Cardoso is based in London, see more of her work on her website and at the HYSTERIA Collective.