An Autoimmune Portrait
by Christina Kha
Since I was a child, I have had many bouts with atopic eczema, a medical condition where areas of skin may become rough inflamed, and extremely itchy as a reaction to an irritation. At times, these bouts would be nonexistent, other times minor, and at its’ worse, severe. Finally, by the age of eleven, after countless doctors visits, prescriptions, medications, treatments, and frustrations, the doctor explained the cause of my eczema. The eczema was immune-driven or an autoimmune disease, which is affected specifically by food allergens. Through food allergy tests, or Skin Prick Tests (SPTs), I was able to gain a better “control” over my eczema. However, the human body is always changing and as a result my food allergies, along with the eczema, continue to fluctuate. An Autoimmune Portrait is an exploration of those changes, a self-portrait of the food and numbers that make up my body, and its reactions, on an autoimmune level.
Although I have had countless flare-ups, nothing prepared me for the most recent one. This past summer, when I took a job in Long Beach Island, my skin became irritated. A rash had quickly developed on my mouth and neck. Progressively, the eczema continued to get worse. The rashes I developed turned into huge, raw rashes on my face and neck – they were truly unbearable. Nothing brought relief or comfort to the pain. The rashes left me feeling defeated and discouraged. I felt as though people could only see the disgusting rashes on my face and neck, something I had no control over. I felt shame and embarrassment; as an adult I should be able to take care of my own body and I was unable to do so. Eczema affected my self-confidence and I would view myself as defected or ugly. I would compare myself to other people and wonder what was wrong with my body. I was extremely self-conscious and thought people could not see deeper than the rashes; they could not see me for who I truly was, because I could not see past the rashes either. Eventually, I saw the compassion, kindness, understanding, and love people expressed towards me. When I realized that people could look past my rashes, it gave me courage to look past my rashes. During this terrible flare-up, I went to the allergist and he determined that my body had developed more allergies to foods. After extreme elimination of certain foods from my diet and taking certain medications, I was able to gain control over the eczema. As a result, this photography series is inspired by my life journey; embracing my food allergies, eczema, and adjusting to my body as it continually changes.
An Autoimmune Portrait is a series of still life photographs composed of the foods, reactions, and numbers, which make up my autoimmune disease. The bowl can be seen as my body, while the various foods placed in the center can be seen as the disease itself and together they form my body’s portrait. The number across the photograph directly correlates with the reaction my body has to specific foods, based on the results from Skin Prick Test. The numbers are unique to my body, the higher the number the more severe the reaction. Although I am accustomed to doctor visits, these tests made me feel like a specimen; being examined, prodded, and poked just to find the cause of my eczema. For that reason, the series shifts the focus from my body to the food itself, exploring each object as a specimen, for viewers to examine and analyze the subject just as I was.