In 1934, Dr. Hans Killian, a distinguished anesthesiologist, and surgeon in Germany authored a noteworthy publication entitled Facies Dolorosa: Das schmerzensreiche Antlitz (Faces of pain: The Countenance in Pain), consisting of a collection of photographs of patients. This project, which encompassed medical documentation, aesthetic aspiration, and an ethical intent to rehumanize the patient amidst an era of impersonal medical practices, comprised 64 portraits predominantly of individuals nearing the end of their lives. This undertaking served as a source of inspiration for a similar initiative that I embarked upon.
Upon encountering these portraits, I was struck by the profound impact they had on me. My curiosity regarding the nature of pain, physiology, and our perception and response to death was piqued. The patient's eyes, in particular, revealed an aura of melancholy. Yet, the photographs also conveyed an unusual sense of serenity and tranquility, as though some of the patients had come to terms with their fate. Furthermore, these photographs presented a kind of beauty that is seldom seen or acknowledged in human beings. Above all, they revealed the humanity behind the disease during the most fragile moments of life.
A black and white portrait of a young woman: her round head is propped up on a pillow. The weary face, which is fully turned toward the camera, speaks of profound demoralization. Her overshadowed, strangely commanding eyes draw in the gaze of the onlooker. A thickly swollen throat, a partially exposed chest, and her face fill three-quarters of the image, diagonally. In the indistinct white background, one discerns the shadow of a window through which daylight enters—light from the outside world which this woman, stricken with Hodgkin’s disease, might never have seen again. Another image shows the emaciated head of a middle-aged, unshaven man resting on a cushion. With the head turned slightly away, his gaze passes the viewer, deeply absorbed in an inauspicious distance, a realm of pain, desperation, or perchance, expectation of things to come. This man with inoperable stomach cancer is bound to die. Nothing in the neutral, slightly blurry backdrop of hospital linens and cubicle curtains claims the viewer’s attention; her scrutiny is directed exclusively toward the subjects’ faces
- Elisa Primavera-Lévy, Spring, 2011