Trigger warning for images and discussion of domestic violence.
“There is no separation between me and what I photograph,” said the artist Nan Goldin. This has never been truer than with the self-portrait that captures her injuries caused by an abusive boyfriend. Domestic violence is never an easy subject to talk about, but this image speaks volumes.
[Nan Goldin, Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984]
When Nan Goldin’s photo book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was released, her boyfriend Brian was deeply embarrassed. He didn’t want to be identified as the one who had “battered” Nan in the iconic self-portait (taken at her request by Suzanne Fletcher) that depicts her as the victim of domestic violence—the photo is raw and unsettling, but also hard to tear yourself away from. “Nan, One Month After Being Battered” (1984) is a visceral print that is confrontational and may upset some viewers, but it needs to be seen. Goldin didn’t name her attacker in the title (though I wish she had), but this image lives on in its own right. Regardless of who committed the crime, we are all witnesses to its effects—we all see the uneven bruising on her face and the blood-red eyeball staring back at us.
This is no Photoshop job, and it might remind many modern viewers of the photos of Rihanna after Chris Brown assaulted her. Rihanna’s eyeshadow and neat mascara, applied in preparation for the Grammy Awards, was in contrast to the bloody lip and marks on her forehead. Nan’s scene also evokes pain and it’s emphasized by her standard photographic technique of heavy flash and strong colors. Her red lips are a strong presence in the shot—carefully applied make-up creates a juxtaposition with unpredictable bruises that change color every day. Nan’s lipstick can also be seen as an act of defiance, with the artist saying that she won’t hide away whilst her wounds heal. She will face the world.
When asked what she intended for this self-portrait, Nan Goldin said: “I wanted it to be about every man and every relationship and the potential of violence in every relationship.” I’m not sure that “every man” would feel comfortable with this statement, as this suggests that an entire gender is capable of inflicting such injuries, which is an unfair sweeping statement to make. It also implies that only women are the victims, which we know to be untrue, as men are victims of domestic abuse too, and women are abusers sometimes (though statistically this is a male-perpetrated crime). However, generalizations aside, Nan’s intentions are admirable; if her self-portrait can speak to people affected by domestic violence then maybe something can be done to inspire people to take action.
[Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC, 1983]
Although we can’t see the mental effects of Brian’s actions on Nan in “Nan and Brian in Bed,” we do know that he read her diaries, which indicates his lack of respect for her. The nature of Nan’s art has always been very personal, but she chose what she wanted to tell us, using her photographs as a form of a journal. Brian’s reading of her private content crossed the line between what Nan wanted everyone to see and what she created purely for herself. As a result, Nan stepped the other way and brought Brian’s private act into the public domain.
As uncomfortable as this image is, I’m glad that Nan turned her attack into something proactive. Art has been a vehicle for her to talk to the public about this controversial and personal topic. She’s confronted the violence and shown its effects. The abuser’s often-used excuses of “It was an accident” or “It won’t happen again” are challenged here. It won’t happen again because we will seek help and work to put an end to the cycle of violence.