Learning diagnostic medicine is not just about recognizing symptoms of illness, but also involves interacting with the emotionally complex creature that is the human being. Brooklyn-based photographer Corinne May Botz spent three years documenting simulations in medical schools, where hired professionals portray various conditions of what are known as “standardized patients.” The resulting series, Bedside Manner, is now on view at Benrubi Gallery in Chelsea.
There’s a strong sense of voyeurism in the large-scale prints lining the gallery walls, many of them showing the “patient” through a two-way mirror or on a video screen, emphasizing that we’re witnessing a performance. Behind a curtain, you can watch a documentary Botz made with neurologist Alice Flaherty, who acts as both doctor and patient. In the photographs, we don’t know if the pose of a subject is part of “playing sick,” or a moment of stillness as she waits for a medical student to arrive. That uncanny perspective is something Botz previously examined in her The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (1999–2004), a series on incredibly detailed crime scene dioramas from the 1940s. In both projects, the division between the real and the simulated is constantly in flux.
While on their surface they show mimicry of illness, the Bedside Manner images are also studies in empathy. The medical students learn to sensitively approach a woman suffering from postpartum hemorrhage (represented by a strange prosthetic) and a couple visiting a loved one who is on life support (and who also happens to be a plastic mannequin). In one image, an ebola patient looks at a doctor in a hazmat suit, and in the most surreal photograph, a human hand gently touches a dummy’s plastic fingers. The viewer’s empathy is also tested, as we consider whether the pain in these faces is real, and how we measure the authenticity of suffering.