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Narrating biographical disruption and repair: exploring the place of absent images in women’s experiences of cancer and chemotherapy

Frith, Hannah (2012) Narrating biographical disruption and repair: exploring the place of absent images in women’s experiences of cancer and chemotherapy In: Visual Methods in Psychology: Using and Interpreting Images in Qualitative Research. Routledge. ISBN 9780203829042

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Pictures of our first day at school, a special birthday, holidays, weddings, friends, and new additions to the family; photograph albums capture particular moments in a life. In providing opportunities for storytelling, generating laughter over outdated fashions or changing hair-styles, and allowing the rehearsal and creation of family histories, photographs are also a site for constructing a sense of the past and creating a bridge between the past, present and future. Photograph albums offer a means for narrating the lives of ourselves and of others (Van House et al., 2004; Brookfield et al., 2008) and for charting biographical continuity. In contrast, an illness, such as cancer, can provoke a sense of ‘biographical disruption’ – a critical break between past (before the illness), present and future lives (Bury, 1982). The diagnosis of an illness, and in particular cancer, forces people to experience many changes in their lives, including the reality of an uncertain future, threats to identity and sense of self, and a re-evaluation of the person’s place in the world (Frank, 1995). As such, the stories that cancer patients tell about themselves as they negotiate their way through diagnoses, treatment regimens, changed bodies, and disrupted identities are not just a way of making sense of an illness, but also a life (Mathieson and Stam, 1995). Narratives and storytelling are a medium through which people can make sense of, organise and draw together fragments of their lives into a cohesive whole, and are characterised by a temporal ordering of events (Hydén, 1997). Narratives are considered an invaluable source of experiential knowledge, a resource for developing empathy and patient-centred care, and an important conduit for aiding coping among patients (Charmez, 1999; Frank, 1995; Greenhalgh and Hurwitz, 1999). Drawing on a photographic study of women’s experiences of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, I consider the ways in which asking women to visually represent their lives engages them in the task of creating memories and doing ‘biographical work’ to establish the place of their illness within their identities and life worlds. Asking women to mark out particular moments as significant, invites them to enact a bittersweet experience of creating memories that they might rather forget (a cancer diagnosis can be traumatic, and chemotherapy treatment unpleasant), while documenting a move towards recovery and a re-integration of the self into ‘normal’ activities (Radley and Taylor, 2003a). Re-viewing these images and using them to narrativise their experiences during an interview calls on women to remember past events and to confront images of past selves. Against this backdrop, this chapter explores the work that women do to re-image ‘missing’ photographs, and explores the role of absent images in creating boundaries around what selves are available to be remembered. In other words, I examine how the materiality of photographs is implicated in the biographical work done by women undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer as they narrate their experiences. But first, I will briefly describe the study from which the data are drawn.

Item Type: Book Section
Divisions : Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences > School of Psychology
Authors :
Editors :
Reavey, Paula
Date : 29 March 2012
DOI : 10.4324/9780203829042
Depositing User : James Marshall
Date Deposited : 18 Jun 2020 13:20
Last Modified : 18 Jun 2020 13:20

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