One of the first descriptions of a migraine aura comes to us from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who said of the person experiencing the aura, “He seemed to see something shining before him like a light, usually in part of the right eye; at the end of a moment, a violent pain supervened in the right temple, then in all the head and neck.”
Though Hippocrates recorded this strange sensation some 2400 years ago, the migraine aura is actually quite rare. Only about 8% of us will ever see this “shining” that has been likened by scientists to scintillating zigzags and ghostly hallucinations. Hubert Airy, a nineteenth-century pioneer in the study of migraines, illustrated the progression of the aura this way:
Anne-Laure Autin has experienced these auras. In her series Locked-In, she recounts a particularly fascinating episode in a surreal display of beautiful Van Dyke Brown prints. Her persona is at once paralyzed and pulled apart in a hall of spectral rooms. The fear of the inner girl vies, in a visual contortion, with the anxiety of the outer woman. In the words that follow, Autin guides us along the perilous fault lines of the mind and body.
On a spring morning I found myself having a growing migraine attack, which sent me straight back to bed. Migraines were new to me at the time, so I was surprised to sense tingling spreading across my limbs. My left arm became very warm, and I suddenly felt something pop in my head and pulse through me. Right then paralysis took me over like a wave would. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even open my eyes, couldn’t call for help. My mind was fully on but my body was no longer responding to its command. I was locked-in. It only lasted a short while but it was the most terrifying event of my life so far.
At the ER later that day, doctors told me I might have a brain tumor, or MS. I found myself facing my own mortality in a very real way. Even more so when it happened a second time a few days later. After two weeks I heard that all my tests had come back clear, and I just had suffered a rarer type of migraine aura. There’s no describing the relief I felt. At the same time, the terror I had experienced while it happened was still very present, and potent. I started creating work purely in the hope to break free from the anxiety. The Locked-In series evolved and became so much more. It turned into my first body of work and I transitioned from being a commercial portrait photographer, which I had been for almost a decade, to an artist. But at first, it was simply an attempt to exorcise my angst.
Beyond the anecdotal aspect of this story, I have always been drawn to contrasting juxtapositions. I have a Masters in theoretical mathematics, maybe that’s the reason. The Second Law of Logic states that two contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. But life isn’t really logical, and I’ve been more and more aware of how oppositions and contradictions are not always necessarily mutually exclusive. For instance an “ugly”, immoral story can also have some beauty to it. Reflecting on having been locked-in, I was fascinated by the idea that I had felt very much in motion qua brain while totally paralyzed physically. So I set out to highlight those two concurrent but opposite States of Being.
I chose to represent visually what I had experienced, combining multiple exposures digitally. All the photographs are composites. Most of them have two or three exposures per picture, and up to seven different ones. There is no illustrative work whatsoever (I have the drawing skills of a 5 years old), so this is pure photographic work. The ‘thunderbolt’ on Pulse for instance has not been added in, as people sometimes assume. It is simply a hair part in one of the layered photos. I believe digital impressions would have been too sharp and crisp for the subject matter and I therefore chose to hand print the series as Van Dyke Browns. This antique alternative process from the 1880s gives the final prints a certain softness, fitting with my experience, which adds to the surreal feel of the work.
I still cannot perfectly verbalize how I felt, being somehow trapped in my own body, struggling to “escape it”; inwardly, I was thinking, saying, urging my limbs to “MOVE!!!; I tried to extend my arm and could feel it move in my mind almost the same as if I would have extended it, and yet I did not move one bit. I’ve often wondered if this is akin to how amputees experience phantom limb pain. I’ve never had any particular affinity to the idea that our body is “just a shell,” yet I felt what I can only describe as a disconnect between “me” and my “flesh.” A neurologist probably could explain much better what happens in those cases. And I suppose my failing at finding the proper words partly compelled me as well to make this photographic work. In that sense, I hope that Locked-In also acts as an allegory for the complex and obscure link between our body and our mind – a connection we rarely truly deeply contemplate, except maybe on the days when it stops working properly.
Feature Image at Top: Pulse © Anne-Laure Autin
Autin is represented by Corden|Potts Gallery in San Francisco.