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Anthropologist and Artist Collaborate in Prosthetics Experience Research

Dinah Winnick
Communications Manager
University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

UMBC associate professor of anthropology Seth Messinger has partnered with University of Washington visual arts professor Ellen Garvens in arts-based research exploring the everyday lived experiences of people who wear prosthetics. Through artwork, particularly photography, they seek to challenge cultural assumptions about limb loss, prosthetics and how technologies redefine the physical body.

The researchers argue that although prosthetic technologies capture people’s imaginations, the everyday physical and psychological experiences of prosthetics wearers are underexplored. These include the processes of adjusting to limb loss and adapting to a prosthetic limb. This new collaboration enables Messinger and Garvens to use systematic data collection and analysis, along with non-documentary creative exploration, to examine the prosthetics wearing experience from multiple points of view.

Although they have different research processes, the scholars share similar goals. Messinger reflects, “Meaning formation is a deeply personal process and there are many ways to try to access it. Art offers a provocative way to extend the anthropological encounter with bodies and technology.” Messinger and Garvens hope to expand on initial work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, finding new ways to visualize prosthetic limbs and connect with both soldiers who have experienced limb loss and prosthetics-makers.

This research builds on Messinger’s previous work with American servicemembers returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, as described in his recent interview on North Carolina Public Radio’s “The State of Things.” Messinger contributed to the seminal volume "Psychoprosthetics" (2008) and his research findings have appeared in American Anthropologist, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Disability and Rehabilitation, and Qualitative Health Research, among other journals.

Garvens is known for her photography, sculpture and drawing, and for working at the intersections of art, social sciences and healthcare. Her artwork has been reviewed in the New York Times, Village Voice, Arts Magazine, Art on Paper, Sculpture Magazine, New Art Examiner, Creative Camera London and SF Camerawork.

Photo by Ellen Garvins, all rights reserved.

Posted: May 5, 2011, 12:00 PM