What Pain Looks Like

Photographer Justin J. Wee talks about how his new series, "How I Hurt," is providing a visual imprint on invisible conditions.

The photography of Justin J. Wee has been amassing acclaim over the past year as not only fellow artists have been drawn to his entrancing yet educational work, but so have individuals living with pain. His series of photographs, justly titled “How I Hurt," aims to visually capture the dimensions of how people feel when they are in pain. His pieces were inspired by friends who have a variety of pain conditions, as well as his own chronic back pain. PPM Editor Angie Drakulich spoke to Justin about how his images are transforming invisible illnesses into visible ones, and how his work is leading to long-overdue public conversations around pain. (Editor's Note: See also the American Chronic Pain Association and BioDelivery Science International's visual awareness initiative, This is Pain as well as a new documentary on the faces of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, EDS.)

"Joint pain" by Justin J. Wee"Joint pain" by Justin J. Wee

How have your friends and followers reacted to the images?

The response to the images has been really overwhelming and positive. At the core of what I do is my desire to properly enshrine my subjects’ feelings in my work, and knowing that I created images that resonated with the people whose words inspired them is a huge relief and source of pride.

It’s been really nice to receive emails from people who have come in contact with the series as well, talk to me about their pain. I think people living with chronic pain often aren’t given many moments of catharsis, and are maybe searching for opportunities to find closure even though this thing they’re living with has no real end in sight. So, creating and holding space for that kind of conversation has been really gratifying. I can only hope that these conversations have rippled out into the rest of these people’s networks. 


"Undiagnosed" by Justin J. Wee"Undiagnosed" by Justin J. Wee

You have taken what is often called “invisible” illness and made it visible. What do you hope your artwork will further inspire?

Outside of just broader and deeper conversations about pain, tenacity, and hope, I think it’s really important for people to understand how important it is for other media makers to be creating work that represent the sides of themselves they have longed to see. Minority communities are written out of popular culture until we demand our visibility - whether you’re an immigrant, a queer person, a woman, or someone living with chronic pain. It matters greatly to the people in these communities alongside us that we don’t diminish the things that make us different. I hope that this project helps serve as a reminder to people that reaching inside themselves to produce work or conversation, about the things that personally impact them is the most powerful form of activism they can partake in. 

"Chronic fatigue syndrome" by Justin J. Wee"Chronic fatigue syndrome" by Justin J. Wee

Do you think pain and chronic illness have been neglected in modern artwork and how so?

I think there is actually a lot of pain being addressed in modern artwork. We’re seeing so much work sprouting from social justice issues, and I think all of these come from a place of cultural pain. 

I think pain, as it relates to chronic illness, however, has definitely been neglected. This is a particularly fatigued cultural moment as well, and with everything happening in the country/world, it’s hard for these ‘invisible’ illnesses to really command space. I guess on a hierarchy of societal urgency, these very specific and personal experiences are sidelined because there isn’t that same sense of critical mass that allow other (extremely important) social movements to gain momentum. 

So many things we are having conversations about at the moment are absolutely crucial though; there is so much injustice happening all around us, but I think that’s, unfortunately, the reason pain in chronic illness has been neglected. 

"Cluster headache" by Justin J. Wee"Cluster headache" by Justin J. Wee

What inspired your work?

I personally live with chronic pain, but the real inspiration for this project were my friends. As I noticed my body changing and paining, I realized that so many people around me were also experiencing the same. Almost every image in the series was inspired by someone who I have a very close interpersonal relationship with. 

Their pain was something that floored me. I’ve always thought of my friends as heroes, but when they started disclosing the full extent of their pain to me, I began to regard them a superheroes. I couldn’t believe that they were doing all the things they were doing while grappling with the various things that were compromising their body. Even more than that, I could see how difficult it was for them to articulate what they were feeling - and I as well! And once that was articulated I noticed how difficult it was for me to respond - I often wished that I would know exactly the right things to say to provide the most comfort. It’s this weird tension in conversation that makes talking about pain precisely so awkward. We never want to be a burden, we always feel like we need to process it just a little bit more in silence, or we feel like no one could ever understand. But I think what I learned is that no one needs to have the answers, ever. We are just looking for space to feel heard and held. 

Justin J. WeeJustin J. Wee

Justin J. Wee is a Malaysian-born Australian photographer and community chef now based in Brooklyn, New York. He co-founded Special Sauce in 2017, a food photography duo, and on his own, his portraiture and still-life imagery have been commissioned and published by Vice, Out, NPR, Wired, Paper Magazine, and Anxy. In 2018 he was an artist-in-residence at Refinery29's 29Rooms in New York, where he took portraits of each person who entered his room in one-minute intervals over each three-hour session. In addition to his visual practice, he is a community chef for two not-for-profit community collectives, Nomadique and Communion; the former is a monthly dinner gathering spotlighting various artists and their practices, and the latter is a bi-monthly queer-only dining event. See his series at: http://justinjwee.com/how-i-hurt You can follow Justin’s work on Instagram: @djdumpling


Updated on: 02/24/20
Continue Reading:
How to Develop a Creative Practice to Cope with Chronic Pain