Life After Scars

Yellowknife photographer Kirsten Murphy was going through a personal rough patch when she got the inspiration to take pictures of people’s scars.

“I wasn’t feeling particularly good about myself and I turned that into work by looking at people who’ve been through real physical pain,” says Murphy, who is presenting Scars, a solo exhibition March 1-14 at YK ARCC’s studio in Old Town.

The show focuses on four Northerners whose bodies have been “tattooed” by traumatic life events: a high school teacher’s near-fatal car accident on a winter road; a mother who underwent a lifesaving caesarean section; a writer who feels better about her body after cancer surgeries; and a Behchoko man who narrowly escaped a grizzly bear mauling. Murphy, a former radio producer and host with CKLB and CBC, includes interviews with each of the people behind the scars as part of the exhibit (see Tommy Lafferty describe his bear mauling below).

“Often times there are these real metaphysical battle wounds and it’s because of doing this series that I had the confidence to apply to go to ICP (the International Centre of Photography) in New York,” she says.

Murphy attended the prestigious photography school for ten months in 2014-15, earning the $5,000 US G&J Moss Scholarship while there for her series about a seniors’ synchronized swimming team in Harlem.

Ritual, resiliency and the hidden intersections between people and their environments are major themes for her work.

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She says her own scars — one on her right shin where she suffered a compound fracture after being hit by a car at age ten, and a skull fracture from being T-boned by another bike while cycling — were both inspirations for this project.

“In the past I’ve been more portraiture or editorial, and Scars in some ways is one of the first projects that felt really personal,” says Murphy.

An Interview with Tommy Lafferty, junior safety officer with the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Council (WARNING: Graphic content)

Tlicho citizen living in Yellowknife

Attacked by a grizzly bear on September 22, 2004

Photographed December 3, 2013

11 years post-attack

Tommy Lafferty was a 25-year-old surveyor working at the Colomac Mine remediation site in the fall of 2004. The former gold mine is about 220 km north of Yellowknife.

Tommy was joined by another surveyor, Alex W. and an INAC employee Derek F. Tommy knew the area well from past surveys. He also grew up hunting and fishing around Indian Lakes, near the Colomac site. The three men had been told bear tracks had been spotted that day. As a precaution, Alex had bear spray. Tommy had a hunting knife.

What we did not know was a grizzly had recently killed a black bear. We did not know what we were walking into. We didn’t smell nothing. We didn’t see nothing. He just crashed out of the bush so fast.

Derek was in front. He took the first hit.

The first hit knocked Derek out. Alex, who was behind me, pulled out his bear spray but it was faulty. It didn’t work, so I pushed Alex towards the direction of the truck.  I’m pretty sure I said run!  I turned to see what the bear was doing and it was  overtop Derek. It looked like he was going to bite him in the face or head. So, I started yelling and waving my arms hoping to scare the bear off…‘cause there’s that saying that bears are more afraid of you than you are of them [he shakes his head]. Instead of running off, it took three pounces, large steps, on all fours towards me.  I tried to get the knife out of my survey vest but he came at me so fast.  By the time I had the knife out he’d hit me and the knife flew out of my hands.

While I was on the ground, I dodged his first bite. I turned away and he bit my survey vest and jacket… then he bit my leg and stopped me from going anywhere. This is all happening so fast, a matter of seconds.

I’m not sure how tall he was because he never really stood up. I remember his head being the same width as my shoulders. To my recollection he was over 700 lbs or at least 700 lbs… a mature but healthier bear with lots of gold and silver [fur]. He did not look like he was hungry but he acted like he was hungry.

I shoved my forearm in his mouth [to fend him off] then he bit my jaw. I thought he had ripped off it completely but it was still partially attached. And dislocated.

I started punching and screaming and yelling for help. I was screaming to God. I was screaming to anyone. I started thinking about my kids, my family… I was thinking about my whole life in those minutes and seconds… I thought I was going to die. It was a horrible feeling.

I didn’t feel the claws so much. It was more the biting.  

I tucked my chin down and then he started focusing on the top of my head… and it was like… you know when you drag a steel pipe on concrete? That jarring, vibrational feeling all throughout your body… think of that but maximized with excruciating pain. And then you hear the crunching ripping and tearing of your scalp and your skull, along with the pain… it was… yah, traumatic. I would not wish it on anybody.

I kept yelling and punching him, trying to hit him in the nose.  I remembered from listening to elders’ stories that a bear’s nose is sensitive. There was blood everywhere. I’m thinking maybe if I can punch him the nose I can get him off me and he’ll run away. I’m not sure that’s what happened but while I was fighting and screaming he suddenly stopped. He left me alone. He ran away. By then Derek had come to. He came to me. I asked him where the bear was. He said it was gone. He got me up and we walked back to the truck where Alex was.

You could walk?

My legs were okay. He only got flesh from my leg. The adrenaline was pumping.  The problem was my jaw and my scalp.  I held my chin in place with my left hand. I figured if I held it in place it would clot up and not bleed as much. I held the top of my head/scalp in place with my right arm.

Then we get to the truck and I try and open the door and that’s when I realize my left forearm was broken … he bit right through my left ulna…

Tommy spent ten days in an Edmonton hospital where he he  received more than hundred stitches and staples to his head, jaw, lip, arm and leg.

To this day he has mixed feeling about his scars.

The scars are not as noticeable as they were before… the first few years a lot of people would ask and that could be annoying, y’know, frustrating. They’d ask if I’d been in a car accident and I’d say no but it felt like I’d been hit by car (chuckles).

At the beginning my scars bothered me, especially the one on my head. I’d wear ball caps all the time, to cover up the skin graft. I just didn’t like how it looked. It was annoying because once I was back at work I’d go to meetings dressed up and wearing a ball cap. And I didn’t like that.

Now it’s okay. I let my hair grow in, I don’t wear a ball cap (as much). I feel a lot better about them.

Did you have any hesitation about having your scars photographed?

Not really. I had talked to the press a year earlier… that made it a lot easier. Up until then I’d been hesitant… I didn’t mind talking about what happened to people I knew, but I didn’t want to talk about some things over and over again.

By the time you called me I was like, “Yeah, I don’t mind and it might be a good thing.” It might help me as part of my recovery… my healing.

Interview conducted by Kirsten Murphy

Opening night of Scars is Friday March 4th, 7:30 pm at ARCC’s studio in Old Town, 3541 McDonald Drive (between the government dock and the boat launch). The show runs March 1-14. There will be an artist talk on March 4 at 7:30 p.m.


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