I first saw the light

S16mm film projected loop, 2012 

'Tis true my form is something odd,
but blaming me is blaming God
could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you

Was I so tall, could reach the pole
or grasp the ocean with a span
I would be measured by the soul
the mind's the standard of the man'

I first saw the light channels the vestige of Joseph Carey Merrick’s surviving output. Better known as The Elephant Man, he produced a little noticed two-page autobiography, sold to those attending a freak show in which he was displayed, opposite the royal london hospital in London's Whitechapel High Street.

There is one surviving copy of the pamphlet. Its text is coupled with starkly filmed sequences of a model church he also constructed, now hermetically sealed within a glass and ebony container, together forming the basis for this poignant, silent film. A reminder of Merrick’s profound humanity in the face of extreme adversity, it also serves as an auto-biographical footnote and reminder of David Lynch’s eponymous feature film on Merrick, in which the model is a central motif and metaphor for his psychological and emotional fluctuations.

Poem adapted by Joseph Merrick
Joseph Merrick, ‘The Life and Adventures of Joseph Carey Merrick: half a man, half an elephant’, 1880. Used with permission of The Royal London Hospital Archive, Whitechapel. Model construction by Joseph Merrick.