A study in scarlet: Esther Sabetpour - interview

Last year, an accident left photographer Esther Sabetpour's body covered in fourth-degree burns. Her latest work documents her painful recovery. Joanna Moorhead meets her
Friday 5 August 2011

Esther Sabetpour remembers nothing of the horrific accident that almost killed her, and left her body riven with a patchwork of red, welted scars. The last thing the 31-year-old photographer recalls of that August evening nearly a year ago was that she was dancing with a friend. The next she was waking up in an intensive-care unit. "I was like a mummy – wrapped from head to toe in bandages, unable to move, groggy from the drugs and anaesthetic, and totally confused as to what had happened."
As well as multiple fractures to her spine, shoulder, femur and hip, Sabetpour had suffered swelling to her brain. And 32% of her body – mostly her torso and legs – was covered with third- and fourth-degree burns that penetrated right through her skin, sometimes reaching as far as the muscles. "I'd been completely mashed up," she says.
Sabetpour lives in London, but the hospital in which she awoke was in Valencia, because she'd been at a Spanish music festival in nearby Benicassim. The hours after the dancing are a blank, although there is a sinister twist in that she was caught on CCTV leaving the dance arena with two men – it was they who, hours later, reported her injured beside a pylon. "All I can imagine is that they spiked my drinks and took me to the wasteland where I was found because they wanted to sexually assault me. And that when they tried to do that, and given the state I was in because they'd drugged me, I climbed the pylon to escape," she says. Spanish police, she believes, have failed properly to investigate the events of that night.
"It was a totally surreal experience," she says, "almost like finding yourself in a sci-fi movie, with no idea how you'd got there. But I did realise that, despite everything, I was lucky." She was – later, she discovered from her hospital notes that the doctors hadn't expected her to make it.

Sabetpour spent three months in hospital before returning to Britain for yet more grueling months of treatment. "My legs had the most serious burns, but to treat them they had to take skin from my torso, so that became badly scarred as well. For a long time the pain was all-consuming and I wasn't thinking about how I looked... but then the day came when I could look at myself properly in the mirror, around the time I returned to Britain. I was shocked by the severity of the scarring. The pain had been more than I could ever have imagined, but now it began to sink in how much my injuries had changed the way I looked as well – although I realised how lucky I was that my face and arms were pretty much unscathed."

Just a few months before her ill-fated trip, Sabetpour – who juggles wedding photography with art projects – had begun work on a new set of images for an exhibition.


Her subject was herself: her naked body. "I'd always been interested in self-image," she says, "in ideas of identity and in the way women see their own bodies, and so often see the shortcomings rather than the beauty."

Now, she realised, her horrendous injuries meant she could explore these ideas in a whole new way. "This time, the body I'd be photographing would be scarred and red. Of course, back then, when I thought my body didn't look perfect, it absolutely was. Inevitably I look at those first pictures from before the accident and I think, 'What was I worrying about?' My body was beautiful."
She took her first pictures while she was still in a burns unit and took more while she was staying with her father after being discharged. "He went out one day, and I was alone for the first time in months. So I took off my clothes, got out my camera and started to take photographs." She has since taken many more. Her family, she says, understand why she's doing this, and they're pleased she's found something that's helped her recover psychologically and emotionally.

Sabetpour also used the shoots to play out the narrative of what happened. "It's very difficult to get over something when you have so many unanswered questions about what actually took place. I'm resigned to the fact that I may never know. But with my photographs I can play out the story. So in some of the images, for example, I'm lying on the ground and the picture is taken from above – and I'm in the position I would have been in when I was found at the foot of the pylon."
Her big hope is that, farther down the line, she can work with others who, like her, have been disfigured – and who, like her, might find working with photography a useful tool on the road to recovery. As far as Sabetpour's own long-term prognosis is concerned, things are uncertain: she wears pressure garments 24 hours a day, and has been told that the raised scars, and the reddening, will reduce over time. "But I very much doubt that the most damaged skin will ever return to what you'd call normal texture."
If she had her time over, would she still have gone to Benicassim? "It's very difficult to know," she confesses. "I always wanted to do something powerful. And what's happened to my body has given me the chance to do that."