In vitro
: a practice-based research project exploring the impact of biotechnologies on the family photographic portrait using empathy as a creative tool.

  • Susanne Rea

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This practice-based research project sits at the fault lines where medicine, technology and society meet. An exploration of the human experience of biotechnologies, it looks specifically at the ‘new genetics’ revolution born of advances in assisted reproductive techniques. Harnessing the vernacular potential of the family photograph as a typology, the project seeks to promote a discourse on the complex social and ethical issues posed by the application of embryo-screening technologies such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In so doing, it aims to visualise what Sarah Franklin describes as the ‘new kind of biological kinship’ (2013: 32) that is shaping society from the cell-up. Inherently interdisciplinary, the project draws inspiration from a broad cross section of fields - neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, ethology, the medical sciences, art history and photography - breaking new ground in several ways. Firstly, in the body of work created with its unique focus upon the dominant users of these cutting-edge technologies, families living with rare disease. Secondly, in the theoretical and methodological approaches adopted which explore the interrelational potential of the photograph as an ‘empathy-eliciting’ tool and active ‘visual cell’; ideas which challenge the tenets of the postmodern photographic discourse.

A practice-based enquiry, the project occupies a ‘performative’ paradigm, incorporating as it does both traditional research methods alongside ‘rich presentational forms’ of data (Haseman; 2006). This pluralist methodology allows the design and creation of the new artworks to sit in harmony with both a theoretical exegesis and a pilot study evaluating the new works that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative methods. The findings which emerge from the latter, ‘empathy experiment’, show the new pieces to have been collectively successful in both activating empathy and in promoting a discourse on the personal and societal dilemmas posed by assisted reproductive technologies (ART). As a research output with the potential to generate further research acrossmultiple different fields of enquiry, the new artworks, in their purposeful design and ‘empathy-eliciting’ capacity, therefore exist as a novel contribution to knowledge.
Date of AwardJun 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPaul Seawright (Supervisor) & Fiona Bloomer (Supervisor)


  • Photography
  • Art
  • Science
  • Assisted reproductive technologies
  • Interdisciplinary
  • Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis
  • PGD
  • Genetics
  • Rare disease

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