Still Life: Chronic Migraine in pictures
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Profile photo of Rachael Jablo

Rachael Jablo got her first camera at age 6 and her first migraine at age 15. Since receiving her MFA in Photography and New Genres from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2003, she has exhibited solo and group shows across the country. Her first book, My days of losing words, documents her experience with chronic migraine. Help Rachael publish My days of losing words, by supporting the Kickstarter campaign

I’ve been dealing with chronic migraine since high school, but wasn’t diagnosed until 2008. Most of the time, I was “lucky” and the headaches would only last a few weeks at a time, but in 2006, one started that lasted four and a half months, which terrified me, and then in the beginning of June 2008 another started that is still ongoing. That’s when I finally got diagnosed and started seeking treatment.

About nine months into this headache, after a failed hospital treatment, I came to accept that this headache probably wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and my photographic work was going to have to change. I had been a landscape and urban landscape photographer before then, and in fact was about to open my first solo show in San Francisco at the time (a major feat for someone so ill!). I knew that I wasn’t about to give up shooting altogether, so I figured I’d make lemonade out of the lemons I was given, and make art out of my illness. Often the only time I was leaving the house was to go to see my doctors, so those were the two places I started shooting.

At the same time, I was put on a new daily medication that brought my pain level down, but made me forget words. This was a horrible irony for me, as one of the symptoms I had of migraine had been that I couldn’t speak- the thoughts would be there but the synapses between my mouth and brain were fried. So to be able to speak but lose my vocabulary was heartbreaking to me. I started keeping a list of lost words, and was using that as the basis for my photographs. The images were like visual mnemonics for me, using the words as one-word titles. This became the basis for the series, My days of losing words. Eventually, I realized that the still life and medical imagery wasn’t enough, so I began photographing myself, when I was in pain and later on, as I began to heal, and that rounded out the work.

Right now, I’m in a really good place, and you can see it in the work. In the earliest photographs, they’re shot super tight, with the tunnel vision that comes with the extreme pain of migraine. There’s no natural light in those early images. As I started to heal, the images naturally started to open up, and light started to come in.

The exciting news is that I’m working with a German publisher, Kehrer Verlag, and a book of My days of losing words will be coming out at the end of the year. A curator with chronic migraine, Robert Wuilfe (www.RobertWuilfe.com) will be writing an introduction about the artwork, and Dawn Buse, a researcher in chronic migraine, will be contributing an essay. Because we want the book to be accessible to as many people as possible, it will be released at a lower price point than normal art books. It’s important to me that this not stay in the rarified art world. This is my first book, and to have it be about something so personal, and yet so much bigger than me means a lot to me. There are a lot of us with chronic migraine in the world, but we’re invisible. We’re hidden indoors, and we have “just a headache” and so our pain is often ignored. It’s not taken as seriously as a lot of other ailments- by people around us, but also by organizations that fund research, for example. It’s not a “sexy” disorder that brings in a ton of money, and we suffer for it.

This is, as far as I know, the first photo book about chronic migraine. I’m hoping I can reach as many people as possible.

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11 comments on “Still Life: Chronic Migraine in pictures

  1. Congratulations on your book, Rachael. What a beautiful way to share your story.

  2. Profile photo of taralane taralane says:

    Can’t wait to read your book. It sounds like a fascinating combination – photos & migraines. I too lose words, not only from the migraines, but from the various meds I have taken over the years.

    I am also an artist, and have been writing for a while about my migraines, but now am thinking about putting them into my creative work. Might as well get something positive out of them. Most of the time I am in bed with ice on my head.

    Congrats on the book – will purchase as soon as it’s out.

  3. pooh2you says:

    I am looking forward to your book! I too take a daily medication that has me “fogetting” words – on top of having this already as a symptom of my migraines – and I am a verbal mess! My daughter also has this same symptom with her migraines and between the two of us we are able to “translate” for each other. We call it speaking migraine. LOL
    Needless to say, I will be among the first to peuchase you book! I am eager to see your photos!

  4. Sara says:

    Can’t wait to se it….

  5. Profile photo of jodgo25 jodgo25 says:

    What a fantastic idea!!!!! I love this!

  6. Congratulations, Rachel — this is awesome! For more artistic expressions of life with migraine in art and written expressions, you might want to check out Migraine Expressions at http://www.migraineexpressions.com. I’m proud of and happy for you and your accomplishments! — Betsy

  7. Hey, Rachel. I’m Kristi and am very interested in your book. I have been living with Daily Intractable Chronic Migraines for about 9 years.
    What I really love about how this book came about is that you worked with “what you had in the present moment”. It seems to me to follow very old and wise Buddhist philosophy of life. I wonder if living this way, finding the small gift in each day as you found “the” picture, helped your pain or your work toward opening up again.
    I’m so glad you had this idea for the book. It may help folks who don’t have migraines understand what they are like a little more easily. More, though, I am excited to see the book to witness someone else’s journey. I find the stories of others to be very inspirational.
    Namaste~ Kristi from Wisconsin

  8. Profile photo of Janet Janet says:

    Congratulations rachael!!! I’m sorry for your struggle but share 37 years of chronic migraine with you. My daughter, age 27, is a photographer like you in manhattan..also a migraine sufferer. This will give her great hope and insight. God Bless You and the courage you had to have a voice in this affliction we share. I couldn’t stop nodding my head when you wrote about losing your words…I went 8 years straight with a migraine..that ended last year…but yesterday was the year anniversary of my last in patient hospital treatment that lasted 8 days and failed…like all the others. I still suffer the side effects today and am on day 30 of a migraine…without words.

    Blessings,
    Janet Jones

  9. Profile photo of Monica Monica says:

    I love this idea! Yay!

  10. Profile photo of theresadz theresadz says:

    Congratulations on your book and for finally getting to the other side of your horrible migraine and getting your words back! Obviously this is a long journey for all of us but thank you for sharing this section of your journey and I look forward to checking your book out. I hope that your book reaches a lot of people and touches many hearts.

  11. Profile photo of Vonnie Vonnie says:

    I am also a photographer and my ever increasing migraines have affected my work enormously over the last few years so it’s fantastic to see you turning something negative into something so positive! I will keep an eye out for your book.

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