katia roberts – your dark euphoria

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Katia Roberts

Your Dark Euphoria

play this essay

They wanted to flower, and flowering is being beautiful.
But we want to ripen, and that means being dark and taking pains.
-Rainer Maria Rilke

In 2004, I met a young man, named Noel, in a park.
He had lots of interesting tattoos but what really drew me in was seeing the symbol for anarchy branded onto his upper chest.
I had never seen a human branded before.
He said if I followed him I’d see lots of things I’d never seen before.
Man, was he right about that.

These photos were made in 2004-05 as I photographed P.U.R.E.– People Undergoing Real Experiences–
a piercing and suspension subculture in Seattle.

As their name implies everything you see is real.  The hooks are real. The spears are real. The blood and the emotions are real.
I would have had no interest in photographing them otherwise.
Lest you think this is about pain or masochism, think again.
Pain is not the goal, it is the gateway.


Katia Roberts is a photographer residing in Seattle, WA.

Related links

Katia Roberts on Lightstalkers

Katia Robert’s Blog

62 Responses to “katia roberts – your dark euphoria”

  • This is stunning. Easily one of BURN’s best — and that’s saying something.

  • Picture 08 is somehow disturbing. There are so many nerves around the eye. These guys have to know really good what they are doing, otherwise facial paralysis could be a result.
    It is a real subculture.
    Good pictures.
    Well done!

  • I know the guy who had every last piece of his body tattoed…I mean every last milimeter.
    And then he had a whole bunch of piercings.
    and then he rode a unicycle….juggling loaded chainsaws.
    got in the guinness book of records for it.



    The whole thing makes me cringe. And I have seen this kind of thing before.

    Which means, as far as I am concerned, this piece does its job.

    Well shot.

    And I don’t care if pain is the goal or not…. OUCH!

  • Just love this work.
    Well done. Keep up the good work.
    It seema easy but I know it wasn’t :)

  • A opportunity gone begging………. pitting raw emotion and head space against structural elements of colour,form, space and the tension between flesh and contradicting materials.

  • number 9 is a nice shot.

  • Oh Katia, I already knew you were an amazing human being who could see into the souls of persons others turn away from, I just didn’t know you were such a remarkable photographer as well. Wow! I am blown away by the dark beauty of these portraits. Disturbing as they are to see, the respect you have for each one of your subjects saves these images from exploiting their, to us, strange choices. Through your eyes I see them as persons following a path that satisfies something deep in them. And a communal path at that. You have pulled back a veil that, without your help, would have been forever closed to me. Thank you for your willingness to see everyone as worthy of respect. I need to learn that from you.


  • ………yea it’s a pity that the essay lacks passion.

  • Oh Katia, The first photo brought my hand to my mouth and I could barely breath. Through the whole thing I kept wondering where the gateway was taking them. If they do this on a continuous basis and the whole thing is not about the pain but the gateway the pain takes them through–have they gotten where they need to be yet?

    When I went through my divorce and in the first year suddenly decided to get a tattoo and then over the next years had a complete back piece done, I realized that I had a deeper understanding of why people cut themselves. That now I understood what pain can excise from the deep fibers of emotional pain. But by the time the piece was finished I had reached a place of peace and felt I no longer needed the needle to push past that painful place. The work actually gave me courage to face the future and told a story I needed to tell, a wish for the planet’s future.

    These folks must really be in some deep dark painful place to need this to this extreme. I mean, who among us does not feel this is extreme? The guy who finally resorted to juggling chainsaws when one slip could chop off vital parts…what pushes this behavior? How deep a hole must there be that it never is filled and they continually resort to more and more extreme behavior. And then, maybe it has nothing to do with filling an emptiness but a desire to reach some place that they can’t reach in “normal” life. And can I even call this outside normal life?

    In my world they are definitely outside the norm; obviously in theirs they are not.

    BTW, these photos are exceptional. Thanks for putting them out there to see. They are masterful portraits of people doing something they obviously love.

  • Confused by your comment Imants. How is it lacking in passion? It elicited passion when I viewed it, they obviously had passion in their pursuit of this outrageous practice. Katia shows passion in putting herself in a position to witness something that had to really make her uneasy. Really want to know why you said that and what you think would bring passion into the essay.

  • Is it passion it lacks?? maybe.
    The feeling I get is one of performance. These feel and look like theatrical shots. I see characters but not the people working the characters. Its a bit ‘welcome to the show’

  • But maybe that is what it is all about–getting attention. This is one way they get attention in a world they maybe feel isn’t recognizing them or seeing them even.

  • “They” may be passionate in their pursuit but it is not evident in the images ………. just by putting yourself in a position does not automatically equate to being able to pull it off photographically nor does it mean one is passionate …………it is timid shooting

  • ……….Lee don’t let the subject and activity override the images, this is not a rare occurrence, quite common in various incarnations and forms in many social circles .

  • I can see an image in this series that would show the grit of the emotion that drives them to do it. In that I see what you mean. These do portray the act and the grimaces and gruesomeness of the act. But they don’t reveal the why. Guess that would mean shooting them outside in their regular life, not just at these gatherings?

    Timid shooting. Hummmmm. Puts me to questioning my own shooting, which I guess is what the teaching on this site is supposed to do.

  • Thanks for the link Imants. Not. The guy being cut in half while hanging upside down….I have to wonder how anyone could actually do this kind of torture to someone for sometimes days…

  • …… then I guess you never went to a Rose Tattoo concert

  • and then there is happens in their bedrooms when they are all alone……….

  • and then there is what happens in their bedrooms when they are all alone……….

  • cool
    Thank you to show me this world, very strange people :D nice

  • Brings to mind all those Clive Barker books I read as a youngster, particularly The Hellbound Heart and the Cenobites as so scarily portrayed in the Hellraiser films.

    I quickly bored of those books and those movies and these pictures don’t really add much. This is a subject for video I think where we can get to know these people a bit and begin to understand their motivations.

  • I agree with Gladdy’s point about the performance aspect. I contrast that with Katia’s contention that pain is not the goal, but the gateway, and ask; the gateway to what? Ideally, the images would provide more of clue. As is, it seems a very well-made record of a particular show. Good work on the surface. Not seeing much below.

    Hey Gladdy, is that guy you know “The Enigma” from Show Devils? If so, I’ve spent some time around him and he seemed like a nice guy. Of course I realize those show people can fool ya.

  • DAH/Anton–

    thanks for publishing this, though i now feel so disconnected from this work.
    time and distance will do that.

    also, could you move this to “Photographic Essays”?
    this is not a work-in-progress.
    it’s finished.
    it seems like a lifetime ago..

    thanks for your comments all.
    i’ll be back shortly w more specific responses.

    thanks for looking.

  • a civilian-mass audience

    KATIA…this is all real…!!!
    and you need some guts…to take “real pics”…Thank you!

    oups,wrong aisle…;)

  • Wow Katia, I did not know this work of yours and… I love it. As Patricia says… it’s plenty of dark beauty. Great!! “He said if I followed him I’d see lots of things I’d never seen before”… good that you followed him!! ;)

  • This is stunning. Easily one of BURN’s best — and that’s saying something.
    This is stunning. Easily one of BURN’s best — and that’s saying something.
    This is stunning. Easily one of BURN’s best — and that’s saying something.

    PRESTON IS 100% right on this..


  • Lacks passion? lol…
    why passion is necessary?…its a show….
    pain is necessary here, not passion..and Katia nailed it!

  • lets leave passion for Mel Gibson…
    Easter is gone…tired of crucifixions and fake propaganda passion…
    if we need “passion” lets watch that garbage movie “passion of the christ” or some shit like that:(

  • “why passion is necessary?…its a show….”

    Precisely. It’s entertainment combined with pain, not too different from WWF or Mixed Martial Arts cage
    The images are strong,of course,and maybe a little shocking for some but there lacks something for
    me as a story.
    I want to see how these individuals live, day to day, with their choices.

    Let’s leave the crucifixions for the taggers :)

  • Katia…

    This is essay is extreme and extremely good!
    I can see the theatrical shots John Gladdy wrote about, however that doesn’t make it lose any of it’s intensity for me. The point about passion well I think those involved have brought along enough as it is.

    I’m curious to hear more about these people and what makes them tick. I don’t understand this kind of search for pain, although I’m the first one guilty of practising sport to the utter limits just to scrape a couple of seconds…I’ve fainted and I’ve vomited by going to the limits and I now also walk with a crutch because of this search…the pain is immense and intense whilst training but it is very very spiritual and has always pacified the beast within me.

  • Katia, I am in the same situation that I was with the last two posts. My laptop is malfunctioning and I can only view these on my iPhone without my reading glasses – and with your pictures, I just do not want to do that. I plan to go home tomorrow night. I will look at it then and perhaps this post will still be current enough to add my comment too.

    I know its good, though. All of your work amazes me.

  • Nice series, Panos.

    In this pic do you see emotion,passion, or spectacle ?

    (site is not beta so excuse the excess and placeholders)

  • I guess I differ from most here…….This essay is like the image(pianting or sculpture} of Christ on a cross that is found in Christian churches throughout the world. They depict the event but that is as far as it goes even Christ on the Cross cross by Dali is clinical ..then we have work like Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves by Rubens, Images of christ by EL Greco and we start seeing the essence.
    I will leave it to others to comment I am done here………..

  • Anybody ever heard of robert mapplethorpe?
    ( think ! )

  • this leaves me with many questions……
    and thats a good thing…

  • There is a photograph I’ve seen during one of the screenings last week at the WPP that I cannot get out of my head, I see it even with open eyes.. it is the picture of a boy, put into jail and sentenced to three years for possession of a minor quantity of cannabis. He is in an cell with adults.

    I know this sounds overly dramatic, but looking at the slideshow, one picture after the other in silence, there came through such a huge sense of sadness and pain you could almost touch it.

    And then I come here and see this. I don’t quite understand. But probably I’m not supposed to do so.

  • Well photographed for sure. Its theatrical and disturbing, but I don’t feel you need an entire essay of people being pierced. I would be more interested in seeing these people interacting in their lives outside of the “show” Who are they? Why do they do this? If that was addressed I think it would make a more interesting essay.

    What is the point of this essay? Just to say these people exist? Of course they do, we live a wild and crazy world!….. BUT WHY???

  • Photos are well-taken, though they seem a bit staged to me, a bit distanced. And… the gateway to what exactly?

    I know, I may well be missing something. I think it’s important, vital really, that photographers/artists/writers are open to exploring any avenue that presents itself, but this isn’t one I feel like wandering down. I have registered similar feelings when looking through those corpse-arrangements by Joel-Peter Witkin. Odd, when I consider that I am comfortable enough (perhaps too comfortable, too numbed) by war and disaster photography, most of which is ubiquitous at this stage. Maybe it’s because this is just too alien for someone whose desires and pleasures are completely unremarkable; war/disaster is also alien of course, though I can at least try to empathise with those involved. Or maybe it’s just because I have an affection for joyous, fleshy, sweaty, relaxed, unrehearsed, unscripted, non-uniformed, largely pain-free sex, and I love the female body is all its unpierced, unzipped, unchained, unmodified, imperfect glory. So the idea of self-inflicted pain/torture/wounds repels me. It reminds me of those Catholic saints and martyrs my grandmother approved of; Butler’s ‘Lives of the Saints’, etc. I know pain is synonymous with ecstasy for some people. Not me though, I’m a pain virgin.

    Like Paul, I thought of Hellraiser too, and ‘Books of Blood’, etc., and I too was bored by Clive Barker’s (inept, convoluted and utterly pretentious) prose. Never bothered with the movies.

  • KATIA :))


    have had no time to write (with david in town and crazy school week), so I’ll write something for you tomorrow, promise :)))

    more words tomorrow


  • I’m assuming that none of these people are gainfully employed and that they are doing their level best to stay not gainfully employed.

  • You’d be surprised, Akaky. That cubicle mate that is always on time, never makes a mistake, never complains, takes copious notes in meetings, eats his/her lunch while working…? Ever wondered?

    You’d be surprised. ;^}

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    In one sense Imants is right. At first I had the visceral reaction to the spectacle and the unfamiliarity of this (sub)culture and it’s breath taking. But sometimes I feel like work which is so loaded already requires something subtler or against the type – if it requires anything at all.

    It would be of some great interest to me to see these individuals in the banality of the everyday or through a lens less interested in the drama and more focused on the human. It’s theater; I get it. I see it in the staging and the lighting and the black and the white.

    There is a safety in this particular selection of work that I feel does not do justice to either the photographer’s courage or the subjects’ intensity.

    It’s still breath taking though.

  • I am home now. Now I can view these not on my iPhone but my Apple Cinemascreen and I have my reading glasses to sharpen the images.

    Oh, God, Katia – what a dark world soft-hearted you has ventured into! The pictures do shock – but only for a moment. Then sorrow and sadness quickly replaces shock and I find myself feeling broken-hearted for these kids, and wondering about their larger lives.

    I feel desperate for them. I hope they pass through their gates and that life opens up to them.

    I believe you have produced a classic. I don’t think it needs any more, any less. We do not need to see the banality of their everyday lives. We already know it is there.

  • “And then one day this infirm body moves in the womb of God.”–Marquerite Duras, ‘The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein’

    “In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.”-Marquis De Sade

    Pain, indeed, is a gateway, a portal, a beginning, a path toward an awareness that extends beyond that which initiated the pain. But so too is pleasure. So too the breath. So too sadness and humiliation and praise and exultation. All sensations are beginnings that lead toward both the transcendence of them and the alchemical transformation of the origin and initiation of the stimulation. Pain is always more than pain just as rapture is more than rapture: internal or external, body driven in contact with the world. The infliction and evocation of pain, self-induced pain, is in truth no different from the drive, the need we all have for the opposite–the cessation of pain and suffering: joy.

    Heidegger argued that we are beings who have been thrown into a spin, that we would be continuous, see ourselves as not apart but a part of the world if not ‘moods’: state-of-mind. We are disconnected, as it were, from that which surrounds by the chasms produced by our shifting ‘moods’, our veils and our unveiling. The practice of meditation teaches (at least for me) the say truth. It begins by focusing on the breath and understanding how much of that physical sensation, how many of the thoughts that arise and vanish are both contiguous and contingent. In other words, we ride the surf of our sensations, paradoxically, to escape or transcend the body. Stuck in our sensing vessel (we:body), we long for something transcendent of it. This is pleasure, this is pain, this is the movement and convulsing physical self. Each of us knows and lives this way. You may not pierce your faces or brand your skin or iron-clad your limbs with scars and hook-crevices, but you treat your body to an entire host of sensation: in acceptance and rejection of yourself and your limbs: head and heart.

    Each of us suffers, suffers profoundly. For some, that is very close to the surface, very close to their awareness. For some it’s a gnawing sensation that they cannot quite verbalize. For others, the pain is as evident in the skin as the nose on the face. But make no mistake about it, you too are suffering. Each of us does. We medicate this with a myriad of rituals: sex, culture, medicine, music, drugs, alcohol, exercise, laughter, tears, physicality, emotionality, death and birth. We use all these things as gateways to escape ourselves, to escape our physical selves, our mortal coils, in order to make sense of things, in order to be ‘happy’, in order to stage a life of meaning. For some that’s photography, for some that is sports, for some the creating of art, of businesses, of money accumulation, of photography, of fucking, of delerium, of silence. But it is all the same, The only difference between Katia’s subject and you is the ‘appearance.’

    We tatoo ourselves and pierce ourselves and cut our hair and foreskins. We flay ourselves and pretty ourselves and dress ourselves up with clothing and makeup and hide ourselves in the skin of animals. If these people appear for ‘tortured’ that you, I suggest you re-examine. They are not the other. they are each of us, for we approach our own theatrical carnality and beatification in different ways. Yogi’s contort their bodies; meditators put their bodies under grueling treatment of sitting; athletes gallop their bodies again one another until they’re bruised and broken; each of us scampers against the night and day beating ourselves up with booze and jobs and stress and idolatry and ambition and money and oblivion. What is laughter if not the beautiful gateway toward getting toward…and that toward, in the hilly distance, is the same……

    What I love about Katia’s project is that there is no moralizing here, no sermonizing (sorry for my own long-winded sermon), simply depiction. When Katia first shared this work with me a while back, I told her that I found it both theatrical (a gateway itself for people to reflect not only about this community but their own relationship to their bodies and suffering/joy) and a performance. It is not an exploration of this community, but a peep-hole watching, unmitigated. I told her it was like a step upon which the viewer could at least see people performing something that most would not only think of but might just be touched by, after the ‘shock’ has gone. Though, of course, Witkin’s work deals with the iconography of suffering too, it is very different. Witkin is making paintings that have a direct dialog with our history of religious iconography and our own relationship to play and mortality: death as apotheosis and transcendence. katia’s project is simpler, less ambitious, more ‘humanitarian.’

    What i like very much is both the power of the photographs not to be overwhelmed by the subject (hard to do given the subject) but meets the subject directly with technique. Witkin creates (i love his work, of course), Katia simply opens the door. Strong, theatrical pictures of a powerful, theatrical performance. A performance of pleasure and of pain. A performance that is very much about the human dance, which is all the same.

    and Lastly, as I shared with Katia then, I wish to call readers attention to the documentary Sick: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan. An extraordinary man and artist who died of cystic fibrosis and whose entire life was about transcendence….to escape the body diseased….

    a magical and beautiful human being, often misunderstood…

    some of our bodies our diseased by physical illness (mine is), some of our bodies our diseased by emotional pain (mine is), all of us are bound by our desire to break past the breakage and escape toward the calm…toward the un-suffering…toward something simpler…..something each of us rarely attains:

    quiet, loving peace…

    and for that truth, I shall see each of us as brothers and sisters…whether we inflict ourselves with tools of steel or other ways….

    here is the film…a must viewing:



    big hugs

    I know the guy who had every last piece of his body tattoed…I mean every last milimeter.
    And then he had a whole bunch of piercings.
    and then he rode a unicycle….juggling loaded chainsaws.
    got in the guinness book of records for it.


    If you don’t hop onto a stage at a poetry slam and recite these words in a pained monotone, then I will!

  • Some beautiful photos, though I do feel there are a few that bring down (distract) from the others – #16 esp. Did you ever see/photograph the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow Katia? Seattle early 90’s so might have been before your time here.

    Anyway, as far as the portal to the other side – anyone ever hear of the Native American Sundance? Or the Buddhist Vegetarian Festival in Phuket Thailand? Or the self flagellation ceremonies of Shias and Catholics?
    Funny that several bring up sex in relation to these photos when there is no sex in site.

    Congrats on getting published here, but honestly would rather see a “work in progress” of your street “family.” Don’t hold out on that important work Katia!

  • BOB… I think thats spot on.. escaping and trying to make sense all at the same time..

  • what is the difference? this set of pictures and the pictures of war …
    can i say beautiful passionately dark pictures of libya … glad youve entered their world?

    i guess this shows choice and self infliction???

    humans are very interesting.
    sometimes it’s better to be a cow and eat grass in the meadow.

  • yesyes – the ritual of sundance, kavadi and more, reduced to a ‘dark-art’ and somehow macabre spectacle with the aid of a little SnM, face paint and theatrics.

    the photographs are skillfully executed on the whole.. exposures.. use of artificial light without loosing depth.. couple of weaker shots, sure..
    although – negating with the overtly self-conscious “photo-indusrty” lines.. the subject matter up for discussion, and it’s context here, is more relevant.

    grace – you hint to the similarity between these and a set of war photographs..
    perhaps it all falls within the realm of right-of-passage, bravado and just plain old fashioned “entertainment”.. albeit wrapped in a more commodified and palatable form here than in “The News”.

    and .. the idea of a portal to another form of existence… a “higher state of consciousness”?
    well – as with any good-drug, people tend to get what they need rather than what they want.. some get high while others just die.

    you know – not all of us have the choice of whether to “experiment” with pain or not..
    and to some of us the idea of experimenting with it seems rather bourgeois to say the least, given the daily struggle to exist.

    the last few pieces presented on burn.. as a narrative.. become the humble tale of our sincerity and pretense.. our honesty and our lies.. expression of the pain of a collective grief.

    since davids heartfelt and disarming obituary we’ve been wrapped in the warmth of sams family and solitary and half mad.. we’ve seen a fake war for the “fun” and now real pain for the “enlightenment”..
    burn itself is a narrative after all.. as is the sincere grief which this recent order of things has illustrated.. an exploration and aftershock of a significant life-event.. as physical a manifestation of pain as a skinhead sticking a hook through his chest..

    pain as a gateway?
    can i buy that?
    having lived most of my adult life in physical pain from my genetic failings, and mental pain from my own.. having beaten back grief from too young an age and lived determined enough to make-the-trip-worth-the-pain..
    i could smugly propose to have a gate-key and higher knowledge, yet the banal truth is simply that my brain, and the brain of others here on burn in fact, has undergone chemical and perceptive shifts which accommodate the pain..

    one of the reasons women cannot remember the pain of birth is that the human race would die out if they could.. we learn to deal with our pain if we have to – we’re programmed to.. and if we don’t ‘have to’ perhaps there is always a small part of us which wishes we KNEW… some flick the switch themselves..

    the ‘gate’ which is opened though, is up to the universe and not us..
    like double-dropping ‘doves’ in a bustling bar.. the outcome is unpredictable, at least the first time, and some kind of growth occurs.. or quite the opposite.. it doesn’t.

    after that it’s just ‘gravy’..

    as for the group here indulging themselves.. gorging themselves and each other in hooks and makeup.. i don’t know.. it seems though, that this particular drug has worn off… needs their embellishment.

    war and self mutilation.. “growth” born of destruction…
    if only all war was purely self-mutilation and illness existed without “collatorol damage”.
    tell a person who’s flesh is ripped by shrapnel that they are entering a “gateway”..

    an altered state of consciousness for certain..
    a “portal” for some..

    in the end though..
    just pain..
    and disassociation..
    and out-of-body awareness..
    a right of passage for some..
    entertainment for others..

    envy from me to those lucky enough to choose when pain strikes
    the luxery they have of choosing how and when to learn mechanisms to cope, because perhaps life itself has not bestowed that blessing upon them..

  • Best post I’ve read in a long long time Mr Bowen.


  • “envy from me to those lucky enough to choose when pain strikes the luxery they have of choosing how and when to learn mechanisms to cope, because perhaps life itself has not bestowed that blessing upon them..”


    It is not that birth pain is not remembered, but like with all pain time will do it’s trick.. and birthpain is NOTHING compared to the pain you feel when loosing a child.. there you discover the significance of the darkgrey, lightless numbing hole life can be..

  • David Bowen…

    You have, as far as I’m concerned, written the best post ever on Burn.
    Thank you.

  • David Bowen

    Yes. yes yes.
    “you know – not all of us have the choice of whether to “experiment” with pain or not..
    and to some of us the idea of experimenting with it seems rather bourgeois to say the least, given the daily struggle to exist.”

    Like you I am intimately aquainted with chronic pain. It is not a portal to a higher state. My reaction here is far less polite than yours, which is why I have avoided commenting.

  • DB
    your words…..
    beautifully written…..
    good morning from the west coast……

  • EVA… I think you’ve hit the mark here.. We all use things to distract us from what hurts us most. So as much physical pain can be a distraction from emotional pain.

    As far as these photos go, i personally don’t really get that message from them. I also find it all rather theatrical. But the issue of self harming, or masochism, or dangerous drug use is all to real in our lives and can’t be overlooked as something that hits hard in all cultures, and all class groups.

    But i guess I transgress as these images don’t talk to me in those terms.

  • “the gateway” says it all to me…

    we all access our human-ness in different ways…pain, pleasure, beauty…the lines and paths are blurred but lead to the same place – an altered state of consciousness where you lose your sense of ego and self and just feel. for me the path is one of white light and shifting my consciousness into my right brain through yoga, art and meditation…but i can see the path these souls walk from where i sit.

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