It’s early October at midterm week’s end, and the sculpture studio is quiet save for the echoing click of Lauren Henschel’s Canon 5D.
Minutes before, Henschel had arrived at the studio with several friends in tow, all chattering animatedly about last weekend’s music festival and their friend’s new car. After duct-taping a black sheet over a tall wooden partition, Henschel positioned senior Cara Peterson in front of the makeshift backdrop. Sitting on the pockmarked concrete floor, she traced two peculiar grooves in the backs of Peterson’s bare legs with a piece of ice, drawing them out in brighter relief. Henschel then trained the camera’s shiny black eye on her subject and began to shoot.
Located on Central Campus, the sculpture studio is a vast repurposed garage bearing the marks of large-scale artistic creation: long tables scratched from carpentry and metalworking tools, a steel sink lined with colorful scabs of dried paint, and air laced with the earthy fragrance of clay and wood. This afternoon, however, is a study of the miniscule—namely, the S-shaped scars inscribed in the backs of Peterson’s knees.
“Cara, can you grab your ankles?” asks Henschel, moving around on the floor in ripped jean shorts and a psychedelic Grateful Dead T-shirt. Peterson bends toward the ground.
“I feel like I’m doing school pictures here,” jokes Henschel as she snaps more photos.
“The weirdest school picture ever,” murmurs Peterson. She and Henschel have been close friends since they met during pre-orientation.
“What’s this project about, Lauren?” asks sophomore Kyra Noonan, aiming a brilliant LED light toward Peterson's legs. The serpentine marks are partially obscured by the hollows of Peterson’s knees, making them tricky to illuminate.
“It’s about the manifestation of pain,” replies Henschel. This afternoon, she is photographing bodies with scars, a project she began four years ago, in high school.
Peterson’s scars are artifacts of her high-school years, when she stopped being able to do the thing she loved above all else: running. She couldn’t jog her favorite trails or climb long flights of stairs without experiencing intense cramps. Doctors performed surgery to remove an overdeveloped muscle, but the procedure did not go as planned. Peterson is still unable to run on uneven terrain.
“Even though it’s been very difficult not being able to do something I love, not being able to run made it so that I had to find other sorts of extracurriculars,” Peterson says. She is now pursuing a double-major in public policy and women’s studies, writing a book about experiencing college as a young woman, and leading the national expansion of a campus-based monologue performance about race and identity to other college campuses.
“Come back this way more,” Henschel instructs, orchestrating her friend into a runner’s set position. “Also, let me know if anything is hurting you.” Peterson’s wounds healed years ago, so she’s untroubled by the stretches. Henschel, however, leads a life of constant pain. From the swelling that cocoons her limbs and confines her to bed, to the numbness that cobwebs her hands so she can’t write, to the sharp, shooting claws that tear through her legs during class—pain is a savage creature she will never entirely escape.
“Sometimes it feels like someone just poured cement into all my joints and let it dry,” she says. “I’m just stuck.”
The unyielding, unwieldy pain has a name: psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disease that strikes both skin and joints. Henschel’s particular strain of psoriatic arthritis mainly attacks her joints and leaves few visible traces, so the severe discomfort is hard for outsiders to imagine. While the exact cause is unknown, psoriatic arthritis is often genetic. Henschel is the fourth known generation in her family to suffer from the disease; one of her younger sisters was diagnosed recently. There is no cure.
After shifting several times, Peterson lands on a position Henschel likes. The photographer takes a flurry of shots, then jumps up from the floor and inserts the memory card into her laptop. “This is the only way to really know,” she says. Henschel, Noonan, and Peterson huddle around the screen, scrutinizing the image.
“You look very…marble-esque,” notes Noonan.
Henschel is giddy. She explains that she’ll clean up the image a bit, but she prefers to skip color-correction and other fancy Photoshop effects. “Documentary is really about what’s actually there,” she says.
Then she grabs her iPhone and sends a text message. “I just sent it to my mom,” she says. “Moms know everything.”
It was Henschel’s mother, Nancy Meister ’85, who watched her eldest daughter confront a barrage of medications, doctor visits, and new restrictions when she was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis at fifteen. Born and raised in Miami, Henschel was “the most active child you have ever met,” recalls Meister. “She never stopped moving.” But the disease forced her to be homeschooled and quit track and basketball. “It killed me to not be able to play,” Henschel says.
The diagnosis was not exactly a surprise. Henschel's father had struggled with the disease since he was a teenager, and his father had had it too. In people with psoriasis, their skin cells reproduce in overdrive, causing patches of red, raised, and flaky skin. “It’s like ADHD for your skin. Your body thinks it’s a cut or a wound so blood rushes to it, and it turns red,” explains Henschel. “My body’s essentially attacking itself.” Up to a third of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis.
“There wasn’t anything I could do to make it better,” says Meister. “As a mom, that was just the most horrible feeling.” However, Meister remembered something her father had done for her years ago when she was recovering from knee surgery and unable to play tennis: He gave her a camera. Meister offered Henschel her old Canon 7D and suggested she take some pictures at basketball practice—a way to stave off the increasing isolation and maybe distract her from the heavy ache in her joints.
Photography unlocked a realm of adventure and human connection, drawing her out of pain-bound captivity. “Everyone was always telling me that I couldn’t, and now I had something where I could,” she says.
With a camera, Henschel could frame a scene, give it defined boundaries. “There’s just something about being able to see the world and then capture it for someone, or just for yourself, really,” she says. Photography also kindled her talent for storytelling. “I’ve always loved telling stories,” she says. “Even if it was just at the kitchen table or in a group of friends.” Henschel began photographing her friends shooting hoops and swimming laps, activities that were now off-limits to her. Then, in twelfth grade, she got the idea to photograph people’s scars.
“A lot more people than you think have really crazy scars and unbelievable stories,” says Henschel, whose amateur photography kit included camping flashlights and black construction paper. She photographed a teenager born with her heart upside down and backward; a girl once so beset by self-loathing that she razored the word “HATE” into the pad of her foot; and a young man whose knuckles got infected after he was forced to punch uncooked rice on the ground during a fraternity hazing.
While developing her photography skills, Henschel has learned to read the subtleties of her condition. She knows that a flare-up can result from a change in weather, a stressful week of exams, or lack of sleep. She knows the cost of injecting herself with a weekly chemo drug, which lessens the pain but weakens her already fragile immune system to the point that if someone in the room sneezes, she’ll catch a cold. Because sickness is so disruptive to the busy senior’s schedule, she often skips the injection and braves the pain. The condition hasn’t kept her from studying abroad in Denmark, joining a sorority, traveling up and down the East Coast to make films, and practicing pilates and yoga.
Now, using resources provided by Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, she is recording audio narratives to accompany her scar photographs. Through the project, she hopes to “humanize illness by putting a face on disease, so those who don’t suffer can begin to understand the pain of those who do.”
After Henschel settles on the final image of Peterson’s scars, someone knocks on the studio door. It’s sophomore Anton Saleh, Henschel’s next subject. He removes his shirt to reveal biceps constellated with the marks of cancer biopsies. “His scars are tiny,” says Henschel, “but his story is large.”
See more of Henschel's work on Vimeo.