A human face lies inert on a surgical tray as if staring up at the team of doctors hovering over it. It has taken them 16 hours of precise, painstaking work to remove it from a 31-year-old female donor, who had died three days earlier. A few seconds after photographer Lynn Johnson captured this extraordinary moment, plastic surgeons in the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, began the second phase of a procedure that lasted around 30 hours in total. When it was completed, 21 year-old Katie Stubblefield became the youngest person to receive a successful full face transplant.
Taken in 2017 as part of a bigger series documenting Stubblefield’s groundbreaking surgical transformation, Katie’s New Face (2017) is one of several arresting images that have made the shortlist for the 2019 Wellcome Photography prize. The aim of the award is to celebrate “compelling imagery that captures stories of health, medicine and science”. Composed of four categories – Social Perspectives, Hidden Worlds, Medicine in Focus and Outbreaks – the shortlist perhaps predictably favours documentary and photojournalism. There are some surprises, though, not least the often beautiful abstractions of David Linstead’s microscopic image of the capillaries of a human fingertip that had been injected with red ink.
Katie’s New Face, 2017, Lynn Johnson.
At the age of 21, Katie became the youngest person ever to receive a full- face transplant. This was the critical moment after the donor’s face was surgically removed before being transferred onto Katie. There was complete silence in the room as the surgical team absorbed the gravity of their mission. The transformational procedure took over 30 hours and was undertaken by a team of around 30 medical professionals at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
From its inception, photography has been utilised to illuminate the mysteries of science and medicine, with Victorian pioneers such as Henry Fox Talbot and Auguste Adolphe Bertsch creating microscopic studies of insects and plants that often resembled ornate line drawings. As the category Hidden Worlds shows, that tradition of cutting-edge experimentation continues apace with an advanced image-mapping of HIV infection undertaken by a team of research scientists that allows us to see four representations of the same cluster of 100,000 cells from a rhesus monkey.
Shroud, Rhône Glacier, 2018, Simon Norfolk and Klaus Thymann
In the Rhône glacier in the Swiss Alps, a family runs an ice grotto as a popular tourist attraction. But, as the Earth warms, the glacier is shrinking and the grotto is under threat – an unusual example of how climate change imperils people’s livelihoods. In response, the family has covered part of the glacier with white geosynthetic blankets to reflect away the sun’s heat and keep the cold in. This slows the shrinkage, but it is only a small-scale, temporary fix.
In the same section, Simon Norfolk and Klaus Thymann’s man-altered landscape Shroud, Rhône Glacier, shows the range of approaches and the breadth of subject matter that the prize celebrates. It could be mistaken at first glance for a signature work by the conceptual land artist Christo, famous for his wrapping of monumental buildings and stretches of landscape in fabric. It is, in fact, an attempt by environmentalists to slow down the melting of the Swiss glacier, the heavy thermal material reflecting heat and light that would otherwise destroy the ice. It is an image of an undertaking that seems both surreal and slightly desperate, but the ecological context is calamitous: the Rhône Glacier has lost 350 metres (1,150ft) in ice thickness since 1856 and around 40 metres in the last decade alone.
Zora the Robot Care-Giver, 2018, Dmitry Kostyukov
This woman in a nursing facility outside Paris has developed an emotional attachment to Zora the robot. There are at least 15 of these robots currently in use in healthcare settings in France, and more around the world, including Australia, the US and elsewhere in Europe. Controlled remotely by a nurse, Zora can help people with communication and provide comfort and entertainment (including exercise classes). Some people respond very positively to interacting with Zora, others ignore it completely.
Sex and death inevitably feature and, again, it is in the Hidden Worlds category where the contrast is most dramatic. Simone Cerio’s wonderfully tender and intimate series, Love Givers, is represented by a single understated image of two semi-naked women lying on a bed. Shot from above, it suggests the casual intimacy of longterm lovers, but one of them, Debora, is the first officially sanctioned sexual assistant in Italy, whose role is “to support disabled people to explore intimate practices”.
Love Givers, 2013, Simone Cerio
Debora is the first sexual assistant in Italy supporting disabled people (male and female) to explore intimate practices. Repression of sexual instincts can cause psychological stress, and this can particularly affect those who are not able to use their bodies fully. By providing physical contact of the right kind in a safe environment, a trained professional can improve a person’s wellbeing, increase self-esteem, and prepare them for future intimate relationships.
Cerio has described her project as “a physical and mental journey” that challenges our perception of the disabled and their most intimate needs. “Sexual assistance is a technique of psychophysical approach to disabled people, based on massages, kisses, visual contacts and erotic stimulation,” she elaborates on her Facebook page, “This project is an opportunity, perhaps the only way for disabled people to have such an experience.”
The Morgue, 2017 Luis Henry Agudelo Cano
In a country with high rates of violent crime, many young people in Colombia choose to study forensic sciences or embalming. They seek to discover the identities of the many unknown bodies that arrive at the morgue in the hope that they can then be returned to their families. This busy university teaching morgue in Medellín also doubles as the judicial morgue when the civil service is on strike.
Luis Henry Agudelo Cano has already won second place in the current affairs and news category of the 2018 Sony world photography awards for his black and white series Young People Who Beautify Death. The single image from it included here gives you a sense of its almost ghostly intimacy. Entitled The Morgue, and shot in Colombia in 2017, it is a multiple exposure of one of the young people who are trained to, as Cano puts it, “salvage the beauty of the deceased, that those who love them can always remember them”. Like his fellow students, this young man is being trained in postmortem techniques to erase the scars and wounds of violent death so that the victims of Colombia’s prolonged paramilitary-fuelled violence can be viewed by their relatives.
Among the several captured moments of intimacy on display in the shortlist, perhaps the strangest is by Dmitry Kostyukov. His portrait of an elderly resident of a nursery facility near Paris is tenderly observed, but it challenges all our received notions of what constitutes care and, indeed, tenderness. The woman is cradling Zora, a robot remotely controlled by a nurse as an aid to “communication, comfort and entertainment” of the residents. Many of them ignore Zora, while others take her to their hearts as they would a child.
Mapping SHIV infection in the body, 2018, by Carly Ziegler, Alex Shalek, Shaina Carrol, Leslie Kean, Victor Tkachev and Lucrezia Colonna.
Visualising complex genomic data is hard. In this image, each of the four coloured circles shows the same roughly 100,000 cells from rhesus macaques, with genetically and phenotypically similar cells clustered together. Every dot represents a single cell and the lines connecting them reflect how similar they are. In the bottom right circle, red cells are from monkeys infected with simian- human immunodeficiency virus while blue cells are from uninfected ones. Distinguishing the red and blue cells helps to show which cells change and malfunction during infection, despite treatment with antiretroviral drugs.
Like many of the images that have made it on to the shortlist, Zora the robot care-giver is a glimpse of a future in which new technologies such as advanced robotics and artificial intelligence will inform our lives in ways that, until recently, we would have scarcely imagined outside of the realm of science fiction. It is these glimpses of a future that is already here that makes the selection so compelling. That, and the evidence of the deep humanity that still underlies so much of the work done by those at the forefront of advances in health, medicine and science.
All the winning and shortlisted entries will go on show at the Lethaby Gallery, London, 4-13 July. Category prizes and the overall winner will be announced at a ceremony in London on 3 July 2019