Student's car crash provides inspiration for art


A brush with death. Broken bones and shattered confidence. Survival, surgery and healing.

These are the raw ingredients for a powerful portfolio of photographs, which tell the story of one student’s long, painful road to recovery after a horror crash that could have claimed her life.  

INSET Catherine 2

Catherine Baker, a student at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), turned distress into inspiration to create this striking series of allegorical self-portraits for her final-year project on her Photography and Video degree.

This week they go on show alongside work from her course mates at DMU at the Free Range show in London, a season of graduate art and design exhibitions at the Old Truman Brewery.

The day that changed Catherine’s life began with an early start. It was January 16, 2016, where she was travelling home to Northamptonshire with a friend. They didn’t make it. Their Vauxhall Corsa broke down on the A14, on a stretch of road with no hard shoulder.

It was a cold, dark morning in the depths of winter. Catherine stayed in the car to keep warm. “It was so cold,” she said. “It was -2 degrees outside. I didn’t want to leave the car. I was too frozen to move.”

As they waited for a breakdown truck to arrive, the volume of traffic rushing by steadily picked up, as did Catherine’s disquiet.  

“I was watching the cars through the back windscreen. I remember saying it’s getting busier. And the vehicles were getting closer. You could feel the car shake as they went by.”

And then, just before 7am, it happened. A van slammed into the back of the car, flinging it across the carriageway.

“I can’t remember anything about what happened next,” said Catherine. “I must have passed out. I was told the van hit us at about 70mph. The car spun around several times.

“When I gained consciousness, I was half out of the window and I was on top of my friend. He was passed out, and I wasn’t sure if he was alive. I started crying for help.

“The car was like a crushed can. A total write-off. Then I realised I couldn’t move my arm. It just flopped straight down.”

Catherine’s arm was broken in three places. It would take four titanium plates, nine surgical screws and at least eight weeks of physiotherapy to get her on the mend.

“For a while, I had no feeling in my right arm whatsoever. I couldn’t move my fingers. They had to be very careful during surgery as I had a trapped nerve caught around my break, and there was a possibility I wouldn’t be able to move my arm again.”

INSET submerged

“I had to have numerous sessions of physio just to be able to lift my arm over my head. And of course, I couldn’t hold my camera, which was devastating.”

Catherine was forced to abandon her second-year project on fairy tale-influenced fashion photography, and made a video instead, focussing on her harrowing experience.

And that in turn sparked the idea for her third-year work, and a sequence of arresting images, captured in a bath of milk in her mum’s house in Kettering.

“I was interested in fashion photography and portraiture before, but that changed after the accident,” she said.

“I found closure through the use of ‘phototherapy’. This enabled me to explore my emotions, feelings and thoughts through the use of photography.”

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The portfolio is called Rebuilt, and it chronicles the stages of her tale, from the moment of impact, strewn with debris, to her fear of surgery, to her path to rehabilitation and her determination to protect herself in the future. The milk, she says, represents her youth and innocence – and her naivety for staying in the car that morning.  

One of the most compelling images in her work reveals the eight-inch scar on her arm. “This image displays the turning point for me,” she said. “I’d undergone the surgery and had the cast removed. People said to me ‘you should be proud of this, it’s your survival scar. It shows you’re still here, and you’re still beautiful.”

Catherine’s final-year project is on show with work by final-year students from De Montfort University’s Photography BA (Hons) course at the Free Range show until Monday.

View the complete portfolio of photographs. 

Posted on Friday 23rd June 2017

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