Facies Dolorosa

In 1934, Dr. Hans Killian, one of Germany’s foremost anesthesiologists and surgeons, published a book of patient photographs with the intriguing title Facies Dolorosa: Das schmerzensreiche Antlitz (Faces of pain: The Countenance in Pain). For this ambiguous enterprise, straddling medical documentation, aesthetic ambition, and an ethical goal to re-figure the patient as a human being in an age of an alienating, faceless medical practice, Killian assembled sixty-four portraits of mostly terminally ill and dying patients. This project is partly inspired by this intimate and beautiful book. The first time I saw these photograph they left a profound impression on me. I got more and more curious about the subject of pain, physiology and how we see/ cope with death. There was this sadness in the photographs (especially the eyes of the patients) but at the same time, a rare sense of tranquility and calmness as if some of the patients have accepted their fates. These photographs also depicted a kind of beauty that we as humans rarely see (or want to see). And most importantly they showed the humanity behind the disease during our most fragile moments in 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