Rachael Jablo began having chronic migraines in June of 2008, and for four years she dealt with nonstop pain. She knew she had to drastically change her life and started taking daily medication that helped with the pain, but a side effect caused her to have aphasia, a highly frustrating experience for someone who described herself as an articulate person before the headaches began.
“Losing that part of myself was fairly devastating for me in the beginning, especially because it was coming off of about nine months of a different kind of inarticulateness: Pre-medication, my pain level was such that I couldn’t get my thoughts out at all,” Jablo wrote via email.
Primarily an urban landscape photographer, Jablo decided she wanted to do a personal project, driven by her experiences dealing with the headaches and coping with her inability to express herself verbally. Figuring out how exactly to do that became a work in progress.
For a couple of years, Jablo began carrying around with her a piece of paper with lists of words she had forgotten. “I was like a contestant in the $25,000 Pyramid, where I’d talk around words until they’d finally come to me, or someone would take pity,” she wrote. “I find I (unfortunately) use the word thingy to mean just about anything.”
She started to photograph some of the words she had forgotten and used them like mnemonics to help her retrain her brain to remember the words. When she would see something that would jog her memory of a word, she would shoot it and then cross the word off the list.
Depending on the day and the way her brain functioned, she would have difficulty with very literal words such as windows, lint, or heart, while other days she might struggle with a world like anticipation, which she said came to represent her feelings about “being nervous and hopeful, but also anxious, before a hospital procedure.”
Jablo worked on the project for 3½ years, shooting on film and working on making prints in the darkroom, which she described as being “hard on my head.” She recently released a book about the project, My Days of Losing Words, published by Kehrer Verlag, that she said has received mixed messages in the art world—“I knew going into it that this was a challenging subject and not everyone’s cup of tea”—but the work has been embraced within the medical world. She will have a show at the Learning Resource Center Gallery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA through Feb. 19, where her work will teach first- and second-year medical students about compassion through art.
“I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people telling me how they see their story reflected in my images,” Jablo wrote. “Getting the work to fellow migraineurs, plus creating more visibility for chronic migraine, are big motivations for getting the work out to the public.”