Cooties Presents: Haley Sanders
We are so excited to share this interview with you guys! Cooties had BFF’s Sophie Brill and Haley Sanders get together to discuss Haley’s new photo project which explores the medical field, the body and intimacy. Haley lives in Harlem with her two cats, Brooks and Beetle. She currently works at Mount Sinai as a medical researcher studying sleep disorders. Haley graduated from the School of Visual Arts, where she studied photography. Read more about her below!
Sophie Brill: “So tell me about the photo project you’re working on!”
Haley Sanders: “The project that I’m working on currently started very organically; everything I’ve made in the past few years has been in the same vein, but just kind of evolved and changed ever so slightly.”
SB: “What vein is that?”
HS: “It’s dealing with the body and the medical sphere. It started with my final year at SVA: I was making work about a back injury I had; I had herniated a disk in my back and it ended up giving me a lot of residual pain; I was in pain every day and it prevented me from doing a lot of the things that I loved, so I started making art about it. Most of the art that I was making work up until this point was very personal, it had a lot to do with personal experiences that I had, about who I am as a person, and what I go through, and trying to make that relevant to other people. So I started making work about my chronic injury; having a chronic injury, you’re also a chronic patient, so I was at the doctor’s office at least two times a week; I saw a physical therapist all the time, and I really learned what it meant to be a patient, not just for an annual physical, but really being there and your doctors knowing you just by seeing your face, and the receptionist knowing you, and you’re a really familiar face because you’re there so often, which was in great contrast with where I worked, working in research, I was the person who was taking care of and dealing with patients, and I wanted to go to med school so I was used to being on the other side of that. But I was kind of forced into being a patient. So I was making work about that, and then...being with your medical providers so often you build a sort of intimacy and trust with them; I trusted them with my body, you know, I had to, in order for them to take care of me, I had to let them, you know, in a non-sexual way, undress me, and like, touch me, and um, move my body and poke it, and prod it, and deal with it, and [I had to] be comfortable with that and trust them. So I started getting interested in the idea of physical intimacy with medical providers, and what that means and how it differs from other types of intimacy.”
SB: “Differs, and is similar.”
HS: “Yeah, you know, comparing and contrasting what it means to be physically intimate with someone. Like, the different ways in which you can be physically intimate with someone. Like, I went to my physical therapist, and I was completely physically intimate with her, and it was very different from when I, you know, would have sex with someone.”
SB: “Right. But you were also noticing the similarities?”
HS: “Yeah, for sure.”
SB: “And then you were also playing with the ideas of power, and submission, and dominance…”
HS: “Yeah, that was my next thought, about the power dynamics of the situation. When you’re physically intimate with someone there is that aspect of trust (ideally), and that means that you’re giving away control, and you’re giving power to the other person, and you’re relinquishing some of your...not autonomy, but you’re relinquishing some of your control. Like when you’re having sex with someone, there is a power dynamic, even if it’s equal, you are giving and taking and intimacy requires trust. There was this one point where I was getting an injection into my back to reduce inflammation and help with the pain, where I was lying, prone, on a cold, metal table, getting an x-ray to find out where to insert the needle, and there were three people that I’d never met before in the room, and there was this really beautiful man, and I was like ‘damn, you’re hot.’ And he came up to me, and he was preparing me for the injection, and he was like, “Okay, I’m going to peel back your underwear now.” And I just sat there, and I was like, “Fuck.” You know, in any other context, this would be great! This man is beautiful, like, peel away, baby, peel away my underwear, but in that particular setting, it was preparing me for something quite clinical, and quite painful. So that’s one of my most distinct memories of that. Another thing was that with my back injury I couldn’t have sex, because it was high impact. So once I was on a date with this guy, and we were a little bit tipsy and we were talking about sex, and he was throwing out some cheesy lines and he was like, “I’d fuck you so good I’d break your back.” And I remember turning to him and being like, “Oh, baby, it’s already broken.”
“I think it’s the vocabulary that interested me a lot, sort of how in very different contexts, it’s the same word but it means vastly different things. Like, for example, ‘penetration’ has one meaning, but in a surgical context it has another. And, you know, the idea of going to a gynecologist, that’s essentially a lot of the same motions you go through when you’re having sex, but obviously, hopefully, in a very different context. So I started investigating that, and outside of that I was coming more into feminism and cultivating those ideas within myself, and I wanted to shift it more towards what it meant to be a female patient, and that played even more into the power dynamic, because as female-identifying [people], we’re automatically more vulnerable--culturally, politically, physically, in every way, pretty much. Even biologically, we’re smaller--not always weaker, but we are smaller, for the most part. I guess you could say that we’re generally at a disadvantage. So, what it meant to be already in that vulnerable situation as a patient, you know, putting this trust in this caretaker, you put your body into their hands; and they take it, and they essentially control, it, in a way.”

Medical Textbook, sourced from Wellcome Library:London

SB: “That feels like a real parallel with traditional male/female relationships, where the female is dependent, and submissive.”
HS: “Yeah that’s a good point, and it’s where the male kind of dictates, and he’s more educated, and--”
SB: “He’s the caretaker.”
HS: “Exactly, he’s the caretaker, and he’s the gatekeeper, he says what goes and doesn’t go. So you’re already put in that vulnerable situation, because that’s what it means to be a woman. And we hear about doctors taking advantage of their patients, and I think that’s a small percentage of it, but I’m interested in how doctors and patients walk that fine line.”
“So I’m still keeping it open to both genders, but, as I’ve grown as a person, there’s been a lot of things that have happened to me, that have pushed me more towards women, and being a feminist, and I came out [as bisexual] last year, and I’ve definitely been more interested in the female experience, and I always include that in my art. I want to push it in a more feminist direction, but specifically it’s about what it means to be a human in these medical environments, where your humanity is reduced to this very clinical, sterile experience: you come into the doctor’s office, and you’re this complete human being with all these diverse experiences, and you’re kind of sterilized and made into this clinical specimen.”
“Another ‘spark’ moment in this project was when I was at the SVA library, and I was trying to look for art having to do with medicine, and I found this book called, “Anatomical Venus,” and I just fell in love immediately. The anatomical Venus is way that they taught anatomy in the mid- to late-1700’s, when cadavers were hard to come by. So these scientists made this wax figure of a woman, that you could essentially take apart in layers; all of the organs were in different pieces, so it could be re-used and you didn’t have to get a fresh body for every single anatomy class. But the thing is that it’s always this beautiful white woman. There are many iterations of her, but in the main one, she’s reclining, and her face looks like she’s orgasming. She has real human hair woven into her head, and she has a string of pearls around her neck, and she’s this beautiful naked woman, and then you pop off her skin, and you can basically dissect her and pull out her innards. And direct intersection of women’s sexuality, and how it’s been integrated into the medical sphere kind of pushed me to the point where I am today, which is where I am really interested in how the human body is reduced to an object, when women are more vulnerable to being objectified and being turned into objects for consumption.”
"[your] humanity is reduced to this very clinical, sterile experience: you come into the doctor’s office, and you’re this complete human being with all these diverse experiences, and you’re kind of sterilized and made into this clinical specimen.”
SB: “Yeah, that’s basically a universal female experience.”
HB: “Yes, and it’s critical in the medical field, where it’s that power dynamic directly dealing with your health.”
SB: “It’s as necessary part of the medical field, where you’re treating part of the physical body, but what you’re interested in is how that necessary reduction of humanity into a physical object parallels, and the sexism that is ingrained in the medical field, parallels the female experience in general, i.e. being disadvantaged, and objectified, and being especially vulnerable to sexual violations.”
HS: “Yeah, that’s right. I’m compiling a lot of images, and I’m keeping it open to both genders, but I’m stockpiling medical imagery and seeing the different ways that men and women are depicted, because that’s kind of the most concrete way to quantify this experience. I’m currently in the 7-1800’s of medical illustration and imagery, and back then it was binary and men and women are depicted very differently.”
SB: “It’s a stereotype, but the assumption in medicine seems to be that the doctor is always a man?”
HS: “Because of that power dynamic, and that goes for all spheres, you know I think the default is that you assume that whoever is in power is always a man, whereas when someone’s oppressed, or when they’re more vulnerable, it’s feminine--strength is a male trait, weakness is more feminine, so when you picture a doctor-patient relationship, most people’s minds go to a male doctor/female patient, and that holds true statistically, too.”
SB: “And you’re drawing a parallel from the stereotypes in that medical relationship to the stereotypes that exist in real male/female relationships.”
HS: “Yeah, there are a lot of different ways to care for a body, and medicinally is just one.”
“I could also talk about not just how women exist within the medical realm, but how they’re treated also. So I’m reading this book Doing Harm, by Maya Dusenbery, and it’s quite extraordinary: she goes really in-depth into statistics about how women are treated differently than men, how they’re diagnosed differently, how their interactions are different with patients, all the way down to how they’re prescribed medications differently, and how, for example, the term ‘hysteria,’ meaning, ‘crazy,’ comes from the latin term for ‘uterus.’ So the term for ‘crazy’ has a root that essentially lies in PMS. So to be hysterical is to be hormonal, or have a uterus. And you know, women are shunned for their natural bodies, and that’s still true now, we get pregnant, we’re not able to be treated, we get a period, we’re shunned, we bleed through our pants, it’s a bad thing. The natural processes of our bodies have been stigmatized. So the term ‘hysteria,’ even though we don’t use it medicinally anymore, still carries that stigma, and women, when they say they’re in pain, when they say that they hurt, when they say that there’s something wrong, they’re not believed nearly as much as men. And in medicine, we say that the patient is their own historian, they know their own medical history, and a lot of the time they talk about the patient, “Oh, they’re a good historian, they’re not a good historian”--for example, someone with dementia wouldn’t be a good historian. And oftentimes women are not considered good historians, which means that they’re not considered good gatekeepers for their own bodies.”

“Because of that power dynamic, and that goes for all spheres, you know I think the default is that you assume that whoever is in power is always a man, whereas when someone’s oppressed, or when they’re more vulnerable, it’s feminine--strength is a male trait, weakness is more feminine, so when you picture a doctor-patient relationship, most people’s minds go to a male doctor/female patient, and that holds true statistically, too.”
SB: “Which also relates to how women are treated with respect to their sexual history. Women’s sexual history is dissected and analyzed and mistrusted far more than men’s ever is.”
HS: “Exactly, there’s not nearly as much validation of a woman’s experience, and that holds true for everything, every part of a woman’s life. And it’s explored a lot in reproductive health, I think, but it permeates all of women’s bodily health. For me, it’s exciting, because I have a strong science background, I’m obviously very interested in art, I’m studying for the LSAT, I’m very interested in advocating for women, fighting for women’s rights, and I’m not exactly sure where I want to go with that, but I know that I want to advocate for women’s autonomy. So this is a great intersection of all of those interests. I’m able to pair my morbid fascination with the human body, and willingness to look at thousands upon thousands of pictures of bloody, dissected human bodies, with my love for women and my appreciation for women’s experience, and my understanding of the timeless nature of our oppression, and how it saturates every part of our lives. I think that there are a lot of things that are important about your life experiences, but physical, bodily concerns are oftentimes more immediate.”
SB: “So with this project, you’re not necessarily exposing a specific injustice per se, but you’re pointing out a fundamental inequality.”
HS: “I think an important part of art is taking your individual experience, and magnifying it and universalizing it. So my personal experience as a patient, I kind of picked and poked and prodded, and saw that it’s not that different from all women’s medicinal experiences, and if you zoom out from that, it relates to women’s experiences in general, whether it’s bodily or mentally or socially or politically, it relates to all female-identifying experiences. So I think that the scope of my project is huge, and I’m trying to focus it, but for me it’s really exciting because as far as I can tell not a lot of people are looking at it in a fine-art kind of way, so it’s kind of all unknown territory.”
SB: “Yeah, and I think another part of it is how women feel about their doctors themselves...I’m thinking about the context of seeing my gyno, she asks me, because it’s her job, and it helps her do her job of keeping me healthy, she asks me how many sexual partners I’ve had in the last year. And my instinct is to downplay it, and to lie about it if it’s more than, like two--”
HS: “Even though it’s a safe space.”
SB: “Yes, and she’s not there to judge, she just needs to know.”
HS: “So she can figure out how to treat you.”
SB: “Right, so she can decide whether I should be tested for STDs, or pregnancy, or whatever, and I just feel ashamed, because I’ve internalized the fact that my sexuality is bad.”
HS: “And I think that people tend to downplay the importance of the intersection of your outside life, but that’s important because you are a whole human being.”
SB: “And it’s so much more complex. Like, I’ll go to see a new doctor, and they’ll ask, Are you sexually active (yes), How many sexual partners have you had in the last year (several), Do you smoke (no), Do you drink (yes), How many drinks per week (depends), how many pregnancies have you had (one), how many children have you had (zero), how many terminations have you had (one)...and it’s this numerical quantification of very significant parts of my life.”
HS: “Yeah, it’s the reduction of your life to a number, to a statistic, to a pill, to a pile of blood in the toilet, it’s the reduction of that entire experience. I mean, everything we experience is emotional, whether it’s a migraine, or a back injury, or an abortion, it’s emotional and it affects us in all ways--physical experiences are very powerful, and when you go to the doctor’s office you essentially have to quantify that.”

Christopher D’Alton, watercolor, 1851

SB: “Right, and that’s something that for the most part I don’t hesitate to disclose to a doctor, but if I were to meet a random person on the street, I would definitely need to know you and trust you and be intimate with you to share that information.”
HS: “Yeah, and another thing that’s very interesting is that with people, it takes a long time to develop that kind of intimacy. With doctors, you go in, you shake their hand, and it’s established. Theoretically, you sign your name on that clipboard at the front desk, and that intimacy is established. You walk in that door and you’re expected to give your body over--you don’t even know your gyno, but you walk in and you take your clothes off and you put your feet in the stirrups.”
SB: “Well yeah, but also, eventually they’ll take your blood and they’ll know most of your secrets anyway. They might not know the number of people you’ve slept with, but they’ll know if one of them had chlamydia.”
HS: “For sure. The definition of intimacy is to know something, or someone, completely. And as a side note, biblically, the reason that a lot of Jewish people can’t say the name “God,” and the reason they can’t write it out is because to name something is to know it, and to know it is to be able to quantify and understand it, and you can’t understand mystical beings. But, you know, with medicine, we can take your DNA and we can know every single protein that exists in your DNA. We know the very core of your being without knowing anything about you. There’s this project in my job I’m working on where we take a sample of your blood and we take your DNA and it’s used for medical research and it’s very important because we can look at general trends of certain demographics, but then we also know you so intimately, we know every piece of your body...we know every cell in your body, but we might not even know your name.”
“There was this one time when I was pre-med, I was shadowing this heart surgeon. Heart surgery is wild. And I remember shadowing him in the OR, and I watched him saw open someone’s sternum, and I watched him crack open this person’s body, he broke this person open, and he replaces a valve in his heart. And I remember watching him hold this man’s heart in his hand. He literally held this man’s heart in his hand, and if you asked him in that moment, he wouldn’t have known the guy’s name. So in terms of intimacy--he broke this guy open and held his heart, and healed him completely and sewed him back together, but he’ll never see him in the light of day. That is the most intimate you can ever get with someone--to be inside their chest and hold their beating heart--but he’ll never know his name.”
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