#1088. Dolls Bizarre

By Zelma van Wyk | Opinion

Feb 04

“It is an anxious, sometimes dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot do; they can only be done by.” Rumer Godde


If your first impression on viewing my images is one of discomfort or shock, even to a degree that makes your face contort as if you are watching a horror movie, my message will have been conveyed.


Why dolls? For me, dolls symbolise all the broken people of the world. Nobody wants a broken doll. A broken doll often finds itself gathering dust in the trash, or for sale at a flea market. I pick them up and use them as tools to deliver a message.


Children are the silent victims of alcoholism.


The inspiration for this series came after I had read about and visited Dolls’ Island which is located South of Mexico City.

As for the story behind it, a young girl drowned, and a man named Julian could not save her. He then noticed a floating doll in the same spot where the girl had drowned. He then hung it up as a sign of respect to the girl. He felt the girl was haunting him and began to hang as many dolls as possible to appease her spirit. Apparently he also drowned in the same spot as the girl. Crazy, right?


My images convey the message of people “damaged” by the horrors of gender-based violence, child abuse, anxiety, mental disorders, etc.
I see broken dolls as representative of a fragile mind. These fragments can be interpreted both physically and mentally.


“Depression weighs you down like a rock in the water. You don’t stand a chance. You can fight and pray and hope you have the strength to swim, but sometimes, you have to let yourself sink. Because you’ll never know true happiness until someone or something pulls you back out of the water — and you’ll never believe it until you realize it was you, yourself, who saved you.”

Alysha Speer

Festive times such as Christmas or Easter can be somewhat traumatic for some children. Parents/family often take a break over these periods, and children fall victim to their choices. These children are deprived of certain norms enjoyed by others such as receiving presents, or even a tree during Christmas, or receiving an Easter Egg during Easter.

I hope my photos serve as reminders of these things we often take for granted.


In a way victims of abuse are like dolls, they did not choose their fate but fate chose them.

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”

Laurell K Hamilton

Through these words, I hope all victims in the world know that people are thinking about them and care about them!


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  • I love this post. As difficult as some statements might be to read and digest, it’s the truth! Sometimes people don’t like to talk about the truth, but for some people it is their reality. It is amaizing how this photographer was able to connect scenarios to each photo. Brilliant!

  • Yolé van Deventer says:

    What a truly mind boggling series. These photos convey so much emotion and blatant truth, it’s amazing how this artist captured these things in the eyes of mere used dolls. Absolutely, though saddening, beautiful.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    A courageous and thought provoking series with a very poignant message. Ballenesque no holds barred. Great work Tannie Z

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      Thank you believing in me and for the encouragement you gave me to portray my work to others.

  • Stephanie Brandt says:

    These beautifully grotesque images delivers a powerful message! Well done!

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      Grotesque indeed, but sometimes it deems necessary to go there for people to start seeing the problem. Thank you for taking the time to comment on my message.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    WOW !!

    Well – as usual – I have several comments. In no particular order – nothing attaches to the sequence of them.

    No. 1 – having grown up in the train wreck of a broken marriage – having seen things before I was even one year old, that NO child should be exposed to – having decided by the age of 8 that, if there was any growing up to be done, in that environment, I was going to do my own growing up. I have an empathetic connection with what you are saying.
    And worse – considerably worse! – things happened later, so the following 70 years of my life haven’t changed any of that, one iota.

    No. 2 – not wishing to disparage the efforts of anyone else in DS – but I have to say this – to me, this is the most imaginative and creative post I’ve seen ANYWHERE, on the subject of photography.

    No. 3 – I’ve never had dolls, as such. I did make my own marionette theatre, as a 10-12 year old, and made my own marionettes to play in the theatre – and I do have a “Guignol” from Lyon, which for many of us is the “home of marionettes”.

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      Firstly, I want to thank you for taking the time to read through, and comment, on this. And secondly, I am touched to hear that someone resonates with my work, however I am saddened for the events that took place for you to be able to resonate with this. And lastly, thank you for giving me the biggest compliment I have ever received by saying that this is the most creative and imaginative post you have seen.

  • John Wilson says:

    I needed some time to absorb and digest this one. This is strong stuff that requires thought and consideration.

    To echo Jean-Pierre – this is a staggering imaginative and beautifully done essay on the subject worthy of any Gallery with the guts to hang it.

    I Stand In Awe of you mylady.

    PS-The hand with the egg and the hanging dolls are heartbreakingly beautiful.

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there would be a gallery that has the courage to portray the message behind the pictures. One can only wish. Thank you for making time to leave your positive comment.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Hi John – I’m blushing – so I can’t imagine the impact your comment is having on Zelma!

  • Lani says:

    Zelma, Zelma, Zelma…..wow.

    Seeing all these images grouped together in one post is like a punch in the sternum and the message hits me with all the force you intended.

    This should make everyone uncomfortable and that is a good thing. It makes us think. It makes me question my role in all of this.
    Social commentary is few and far between in most of our photographs and I applaud the message that these images so clearly portray.

    Well done!

    And welcome to Dear Susan 🙂

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      Thank you for the warm welcome. I am grateful to hear that the intended message behind this was portrayed accurately. And I agree, seeing all the pictures grouped together, definitely has a bigger impact than seeing them separately.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    These are very impressive images indeed, with deeply emotional stories, real and imagined. I have never seen such gripping photos, and I commend you for conceiving and executing such a brilliant project.

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      Thank you, I appreciate and value the time taken to comment on my work. And I am relieved that my message can be delivered as intended.

  • Maryna Burke says:

    These photos make me uncumfortable, it dares to state the naked truth that we are so desperately trying to ignore. It also puts me in awe – to the beauty of these soul searching images. And it keeps drawing me back – to listen to the silent messages…

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      The goal was to make the reader uncomfortable. The more people get uncomfortable, hopefully the more will do something about it. Much appreciated

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I did. Years ago. I started “doing something about it” so early in life, that it’s become ingrained, as one of collection of bad habits.

        Some people are tough outside and as tough as blancmange inside.

        I was the opposite.

        You don’t want the details – certainly not on a forum like DS.

        But I can certainly relate to the idea of an “empathetic connection”. Mine’s so switched on that it’s like being psychic.

        “until you realize it was you, yourself, who saved you” Yes – quite. In fact they did eventually diagnose me as suffering from depression. Way late – I’d been dealing with it myself, for half a century, by then. So I told the doctor not to worry, I’d deal with it my own way. That I’d never even consider swallowing “happy pills”, and I had much the same attitude to being dispatched to see a psychiatrist.

        “There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds”. I heard program on the radio, an interview with a young guy who’d been in and out of trouble, and they were discussing “trauma”. He refused to include discussion of his own traumas – to depersonalise, he used returned soldiers as his example. Interestingly, he said this “once you have trauma in a person’s body, or in an animal, you can never actually get rid of it. It may retreat further into them and be less apparent – but it will always be there”.

        I’ve had one or two of those experiences. And he’s quite right.

        And it crushes weak spirits. Not mine – obviously, because I’m still here. But it’s destroyed half a dozen people during my life. The young guy in that interview sad as much – he quoted an extraordinary figure like 30%, as the number of returned soldiers who come back with post traumatic stress disorder and eventually suicide.

        “Apparently he also drowned in the same spot as the girl. Crazy, right?” No! – sad, yes, but not crazy.

        There is an antidote, I think. It’s called “love”. Too many people get through life on a different plane – never experiencing “love”. Others manage a small dose of it, then it vanishes. But not everyone grows up, falls in love and lives happily ever after.

        And the ones that don’t, are highly vulnerable to drowning in the same spot – or somewhere else – or dying too soon, some other way.

        • Zelda Van Wyk says:

          I am so great full for understanding my feelings and what
          i am trying to do with my doll series. Thanks to all the positive comments on the post i can believe in what i am trying to accomplish with my doll photos
          So far it has been an uphill battle as people mostly only see some or other diabolic devilish meaning in the photos

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            ROTFLMAO – “people mostly only see some or other diabolic devilish meaning”.

            That sounds medieval – are you sure there aren’t any “ducking stools” anywhere near where you live?

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Powerful work inspires powerful response–both emotional as well as aesthetic response. As a lifelong writing teacher, I witnessed what sometimes felt like a tsunami of students who wanted to write about the sexual, physical and emotional atrocities they had suffered as children. But when a community of people commit to honesty, to truth achieved through craft, the healing power of art can help us all. Zelma, your images and words are bringing back to me the faces and words of wonderfully brave and talented students. I thank you for this profound work which you are presenting so expertly and with such accomplishment.

    • Zelma van wyk says:

      As a teacher myself, an art teacher, who worked with many traumatised children, I resonate deeply with what you are saying when you are taken back to their faces. When I take pictures, I can envision the message. However, it is extremely difficult for me to add words to the pictures I imagined in my head, as I am definitely not a writer 😀 Maybe you can be my ghost writer in the future hahaha! Thank you for leaving this comment.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thank you, Zelma for sharing your stunningly evocative portraits of discarded dolls. Not only do the images create an arresting tableau, but they provoke the viewer to open their eyes to the abuse and neglect of the real children on which dolls are modeled. Each image has a story to tell, a sad story for sure, even though each image has been beautifully rendered.
    Welcome to DearSusan, Zelma.

    • Zelda Van Wyk says:

      Thank you so much Nancee for your kind words and taking the time to read and look at my photos

  • Paul Perton says:

    Zelma, this is an extraordinary collection of images, words and emotions. Thank you – there’s always a platform here for you.

    On a personal note, I will eventually break free of this damned virus and its travel restrictions and return to Cape Town – hopefully, then we can meet and catch up a bit?

  • Sean says:

    Hi Zelma,
    I can’t add anything over what’s already been said by all the others above other than stating, for me, it’s one hell of a powerful post.
    As a small glimpse in support of your “… Children are the silent victims of alcoholism…” image and statement, I refer both you and other readers to this. I hope you don’t mind.
    Title: FASD has no cure and is often misdiagnosed, but there is hope and help for those affected.
    Link: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-30/living-with-foetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder/13054876

    • Zelda Van Wyk says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words and thanks for sharing the link
      I have been looking for a doll with the facial features i can use in a
      FASD Photo…..and i found her yesterday in a museum so i am working on it now

  • Edwin Verhulst says:

    Almost disturbing images of something that’s supposed to give a children pleasure. I’m deeply impressed by your story.

  • Wihan says:

    So refreshing to see something real and unfiltered. Unafraid to give a real message.

    I particularly like the visceral style of the imagery and how their almost shocking nature adds to the overall message of the post.

    Hope to see more of the above photographer!

  • John Read says:

    My goodness Zelma, my eyes have been opened. I’ve been viewing your works in an almost apathetic way, looking at the composition, exposure ect…….. But looking at above has change all that. Awesome Zelma, awesome

  • Mari says:

    A very creative and talented artist. Her photographs tell a story, challenge you to think outside the box, it challenges perceptions and believes. The dolls might at first gives you the creeps … until you allow yourself to explore the underlying message in the photographs. Thought provoking art.

  • Rudi Kurt says:

    As a fan and friend of Zelmas, he art, her creativity, her love of travel on the lesser known paths around the world, have been a delight and motivational experience for me personally to follow. Her enthusiasm rubs off on people, certainly me. I enjoy her no holds barred approach to exposing a viewer to the horrors that we hear about, read about but tend to shy away from as it is a diacomfiting theme. However disturbing her images are, they tell a story that creeps into my subconscious and makes me very aware of the ills in this world. Behind the rose coloured spectacles it’s not all hunky dorky. Kudos to you Zelma, you make me aware through your broken dolls of the stark reality out there.

  • Michael Ulm says:

    ‘WOW!’, that pretty much encompasses my impression of this wildly successful collection of images. The images and the words all fit tightly together and moved me to understand feelings I’ve only ever considered in a glancing sort of way. This is exactly what photography is meant to do, cause reflection and new perspective in the viewer. Very well done! Thank you.

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