I always believe in the power of the still image. An experienced photojournalist can capture a moment that can evoke powerful emotions for the viewer. As I shoot a variety of subjects, from products to people to weddings, it’s often necessary to be professional and detach your feelings from the event happening around you. This is more so when I shoot for Hospis Malaysia. Many of these people have a measured lifespan and are usually at the end of their lives. Quite a few of the people I’ve taken photos of no longer walk this earth. A sobering thought. But it keeps you grounded. Mortality reminds you to assess what is truly important in life.
On a bright Monday morning, as I drove to the shoot location across town, I expected it was going to be a tough shoot. I did receive a patient brief the week before. Photography challenges are expected but I don’t worry much about such things. Emotions are a totally different situation.
Today, I’ll be facing a two-year-old girl, toddler T, diagnosed with stuff I can’t even pronounce properly. I arrived early. Rang the nurse and waited. Took a few moments to calm down, check the gear, and walked to the lobby of the public housing flats.
The flat was small. The baby cot was prominently in one corner of the very small living room. Also obvious is the whole IV drip stand with the controller, brackets, oxygen tanks, and equipment surrounding the bed. This was no ordinary toddler. Emotionally, it felt gloomy and it was dark. The mother, perhaps reading my mind, opened the drapes and sunlight streamed in. Got the cameras out, and immediately started to frame and shoot. Detach. Focus on telling her story. Her cries of distress, obviously due to her discomfort, were unsettling. Shot a few more frames. The nurse and doctor tried to calm her, take their measurements. Only her grandmother managed to calm her. It didn’t help when the pulse oximeter didn’t register readings on her fingers and they had to try several times.
I know toddler T knows what’s going on. I took some frames, flipped the camera around and her eyes would follow the LCD screen. There was a flicker of recognition. That’s me or mummy and me on the screen. It was heart-wrenching looking at her. At one point, she was asphyxiating. The mother got to the oxygen tanks and her smooth, fluid motions told me that this was just another day and that it came from experience and practice.
After the shoot, we parted ways, I stroked her head and said goodbye to toddler T. Got back down the flats, and walked back to the car, locked the doors, and just let the tears flow. That evening, when I picked my son who was only a month older than toddler T, I held him tight. He gave me his usual cheery smile and “Hello Daddy” and I only held him tighter. “Daddy loves you very much.” Any terminal illness is awful but for me, acceptance is easier when the person is 90. I’m also a parent with a child about the same age. Toddler T should have toys in her crib and should be running around with her sister and brother. She should not be tethered to her crib by an IV line or oxygen tubes. How does one ever come to terms with this? I know editing this shoot is going to be painful.
It is amazing work that these people from Hospis Malaysia do. Truly. When you are that parent who sees your child in this state daily, how are you going to cope each day? Who is going to give you that lifeline? I cannot imagine what’s like to be toddler T’s parents and may never will. It does demonstrate what people at Hospis Malaysia can do, a beacon of hope and life when all else seems bleak. It also reminds you of the power of a still image. It is all the loved ones have, at the end of it all.
This shoot was done early 2013 and this article was written several months later but was never published until today, March 24, 2021.