A woman scarred by a dog bite.

Occasionally, Weird SB ventures – mentally, at least – out of the confines of Santa Barbara. This week, I was lucky enough to speak with Amanda Grandfield, a photographer and a native of the area who has both physically and mentally traveled about as far from Santa Barbara as it’s possible to go in pursuit of her interest, which is, well, kind of weird – in a good way.

Photographing scars, and collecting the stories explaining their provenance, is her current artistic passion. The photographs themselves, currently exhibited at Muddy Waters, capture a viewer’s interest immediately, but it’s the stories behind the scars which hold it – and Grandfield’s adventures in acquiring both pictures and stories were themselves at least as interesting as the results.

Although she began her scar photography project without consciously realizing the source of her interest, she told me that she eventually realized the cause: A few years ago, she was on her way to a Halloween party, and in her haste to keep up with her friends, who were walking faster than she could in the stilettos she wore with the costume, she tripped and fell. Two badly skinned knees, a pair of ruined stockings, and an unpleasant evening later, she found herself at home again – where she took what she described as an incredibly vulnerable nude self-portrait, knees drawn up to show the wounds. “It clearly reflected my mental state at the time,” she said, and it was that connection between the physical marks of scars and the mental landscape behind them which eventually led her to her project.

The first scars she photographed were here in the States. Although she has photographed both men and women, a picture she took of a woman named Tana seems particularly representative of the project. “As a woman,” Grandfield notes, “having a scar on your face can be stigmatizing,” especially here and now. Ideals of physical beauty may change over time and place, but in our culture at least this holds true. Given the amount of time and energy many women spend on enhancing their faces, a scar will usually be removed with plastic surgery or at least covered with cosmetics. Grandfield was fascinated by the fact that Tana chose to leave the scar, saying that she wanted to “heal the way she was intended to.”

Given the fact that scars are almost always acquired accidentally in the United States, Grandfield saw scope for further work in a culture which, strangely enough to most Americans, purposely uses scarification as a way to enhance beauty. Grandfield applied for and won a Fulbright Grant for 2004-2005, which allowed her to travel to Ethiopia’s South Omo region. During the course of almost a full year living in a Hamar village, she explored the ways in which that ethnic group, one of many in the region, views their own scars.

Whipping scars on a woman's back.

The resulting photos and stories are, paradoxically, both almost comically foreign to an American way of thinking and very familiarly human. While many of the Hamars’ scars were cut purposefully as a way to beautify the skin, some are the result of accident. One Hamar woman, whose knees Grandfield photographed, ruefully admitted that she fell down on her way home from a night of heavy drinking, a mishap which left marks for life. How many UCSB students have cuts and scrapes with a similar origin? Most, one would think – and I can’t deny my own share, over the years. People, it seems, have certain things in common the world over.

And then there are the differences and these, most people will agree, are startling.

It’s important, Grandfield emphasized, to keep the more familiar tales in mind when looking at some of the other photos – otherwise, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that every human culture shares common elements, and does not share others. One aspect of Hamar culture which will almost certainly surprise Americans – it surprised me – is their emphasis on whipping as a part of daily life and traditional culture. Many of the photos Grandfield took are of whipping scars. Even more bizarrely, in most cases the bearers of the scars insisted on receiving them.

Young Hamar men go through an initiation ceremony, which prepares them for manhood. At these ceremonies, it is traditional for the young women of the initiates’ families, usually their sisters, to present themselves to be whipped by the initiates. This ritually demonstrates their mutual family devotion, and is a sign of love on both sides. One photo which accompanies this column shows the back of an older woman, who attended many of these initiations. Even later in life, when she was supposed to leave the whippings to her younger relatives, she insisted – she was not yet ready to give up a prerogative which so strongly reinforced her connection to the community and to her family.

Her back is crossed many times with the scars left by the initiates’ whips, and she’s proud of every mark.

It’s not easy to adjust to the idea of whipping as a friendly and even affectionate gesture, but for the Hamar, it’s just that. It’s also used as a punishment, at times, but in general whipping is playful or traditionally significant, and not done with intent to really wound. Grandfield admitted that it’s something which is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived in the Hamar culture. On the other hand, try explaining Botox injections to a Hamar. Culture shock is always two-way, and it’s easy to accept one’s own weird customs as normal while rejecting others as bizarre.

Grandfield kept an open mind, and as a result has collected some incredible photos and both hilarious and deeply moving stories. One Hamar woman, who was wounded by a male goat, is representative of both the funny and the poignant. Hamar children suckle milk directly from goats, until the age of five or six. At about this age, the girl was drinking milk when a male goat tried to mount the female. Unhappy with the girl’s presence, the goat head-butted her to get her out of his way. She told Grandfield that she never drank from a goat again, and she bears the scar to this day.

A woman who got her scar from being butted by a goat.

As Grandfield points out, “You can find strength from your scars,” and this idea of the meaningfulness of scars acquired in almost every way is something which crosses these cultural boundaries. Hamar women may have scars from accident, from scarification cuttings which they do with their friends, in much the same way American girls get their ears pierced in groups, or from semi-ritual family whippings. American women’s scars derive from dog bites, as in Tana’s case, from car accidents, or from a myriad of other causes. In both groups, however, the scars represent a piece of the bearer’s past.

What’s weird in Santa Barbara may be normal in the South Omo region of Ethiopia, and vice versa – the important message to take away from the stories, however, is that anything which sets us apart carries a story with it. Grandfield’s photos and transcribed stories are an aesthetically lovely and very human example of the ways in which we all bear scars, whether visible and purposeful or carefully hidden.

Muddy Waters is located at 508 East Haley Street in Santa Barbara. Amanda Grandfield’s exhibition is currently on display, and there is a reception on Friday, March 14, from 5-7 pm, where the artist will be available to answer questions about her work. The event is open to the public.


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