Having breakfast one morning with her daughter, Italian photographer Guia Besana took a sip from her mug. Hot coffee spilled down her. "There's something strange about you, mum, it's your mouth," her 10-year-old daughter said. Sure enough, when she checked in the bathroom mirror, one eye was gaping open, her mouth drooped down on the same side. Terrified she was having a stroke, Guia jumped in a cab to the hospital where the doctors explained she was suffering from Bell's palsy, a temporary paralysis of the facial muscles.
Over the next three months, while her condition was at its most acute, the world appeared to her in a new way. "I had to use a straw to eat and tape my eye closed in order to sleep," says Guia. "It was a nightmare." Suddenly she found herself conscious of other people's gaze – voyeuristic glances from strangers; concerned looks from her family. "I wasn't privileged anymore, and it made me realise what it means to be privileged," she remembers, two and a half years on, and almost completely recovered. "That change of perception interested me."
The Barcelona-based photographer began to research 19th century freak shows, coming across the figure of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman born with a genetic condition that meant her face and body were covered in hair. Exploited and ridiculed, Julia appeared in a show, The Ugliest Woman in the World. Here, Guia discusses how her latest project, Strangely Familiar, is inspired both by Julia's story and her own experiences, and how it fits within a wider approach of using fiction to reflect on the realities of being a woman today.