Trauma and the uncanny

I am not concerned with capturing reality, I am concerned with creating it myself 1.

Photography has not only affected our understanding of history; it has also altered our sense of personal memory, including how we construct our ideas about family, childhood, and ourselves. The camera allows the family story to be told and family memories to be perpetuated. It produces an alternate reality that can take on the force of the uncanny. Exploiting this effect, many artists construct scenarios in which the pains and pleasures of personal experience return in photographic imagery with foreboding qualities.

Our childhood and adolescent experiences provide the foundation for our deepest, most personal recollections and serve as a foundation for our psychological identities. Thus in many of Moffatt's photographs and videos family life looms large, and trauma lurks just beneath the surface, often as aftermath. While some of the depicted scenes document actual events, others are purely fictional, evoking real emotions through imagined situations. Each summons the past, and even many years later can invoke powerful memories.

Born in Brisbane, Australia, Tracey Moffatt was initially trained as a filmmaker. Although her work may appear to capture a fleeting moment, in actuality her works are carefully constructed narratives. Scarred for Life (1994), one of Moffatt's best-known series, features nine images of children or adolescents in suburban settings. Each image records a different trauma inflicted by parents or by older siblings, from verbal to physical abuse. The individuals pictured are actors, selected and arranged by Moffatt, and the staged tableaux are printed as photolithographs and accompanied by short captions based on true stories. The works simulate pages from Life magazine, a popular periodical in the United States from the 1960s. This deadpan journalistic presentation is at odds with the often intimate and painful subject matter, but the images themselves have an informal, snapshot appearance and are dated from 1956 to 1977, as if they were pages from a family photo album. Overall Scarred for Life seems to imply that injuries from our childhood years remain with us throughout our lives.

1 Inside Art


  • Show: Useless, 1974
    Look carefully at this photograph. Create a list of all the things that you notice.
  • What are some of the characteristics that this photograph suggests about its subject? Write a brief character profile that includes this person’s approximate age, aspirations, and living situation. What about the photograph leads you to these conclusions?
  • The caption under this photograph reads, “Her father’s nickname for her was ‘useless.'” Describe how the caption and image work together to create meaning. How does it speak to familial relationships?
  • Moffatt’s captions are derived from true stories. Experiment with composing alternative captions for this work. How can changing the caption influence the impact of the work?
  • If you were to have a conversation with the person depicted, what might be the dialogue?
  • Useless is one photograph from a series that Moffatt has titled Scarred for Life. In this series, she focuses on detrimental and damaging incidents that occur between family members. Do you agree or disagree that incidents from childhood can continue to influence us even as adults? Why or why not?