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Mortality and well-being; strength and fragility; the clinical and the sentimental: “These are what I mentally distilled the hospital and its environment down to, and what I subsequently used as a working guide for myself,” says Lewis Khan, who spent four years documenting inside London’s hospitals. “A hospital is a juxtaposed place,” he continues, explaining how each extreme, like mortality, is balanced with an opposite extreme, like well-being. “The idea of themes in dichotomy really made sense to me.”

The project began in 2015, a year after Khan won a bursary to produce portraits of local residents, to be exhibited at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London. Off the back of a successful exhibition, the hospital trust invited Khan to create a new project about the institution itself. Initially, he intended for the work to be a call against the privatisation of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), but as the project progressed, what emerged was a “universal study of human strength and fragility”. From portraits of doctors and nurses to patients on operating tables and quieter moments captured behind gently drawn hospital curtains, Khan’s resulting body of work epitomises the resilience and optimism with which the NHS operates every day.

“The NHS remains the backbone of the country, made strong by the diverse population who work for it as a vocation as much as a job”

“This is a photograph of Gina, a senior sister, taken in the operating theatres at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I love the reference to religious symbolism in this image, and I feel this is reflective of the work she carries out.”

Now, five years later, Khan’s images are published in an already acclaimed photobook, Theatre. Following a timely release during the coronavirus pandemic, the first edition of 100 hand-made books sold out in just one week. Now, its second edition is available to pre-order, with all profits to be donated to NHS charities. Khan’s images are accompanied by an essay by his former tutor, photographer and art critic Jim Campbell. In it, Campbell unpicks the project’s wider themes, while situating the work within the discourse of photography and health. “It’s a really important voice to have in the book, both critically and personally,” says Khan. 

The dichotomy of themes that guided the photographer’s approach — mortality and well-being; strength and fragility; the clinical and the sentimental — apply to the project on many levels. Firstly to the patients, who are captured undergoing invasive procedures, and the NHS staff, who work tirelessly to support them. They can also be applied to the hospital itself, in the pieces of art that exist as an antidote to its cold white walls and plastic tubes, for example. More broadly, the themes become representative of the NHS itself. “I felt strong parallels between what I understood of the hospital, and what I understood of the political decisions being made around the system that governs it,” Khan explains. The past decade of austerity and budget cuts have forced an increasing pressure on an already fragile system, but “it remains the backbone of the country,” says Khan, “made strong by the diverse population who work for it as a vocation as much as a job”. 

“Although calm and clinical, there is a lot of underlying drama to what is happening, which feels very theatrical”

“There was a real meeting of the clinical and the sentimental in hospitals. This image of a found message on a visitors room whiteboard exemplified that for me. There’s such an emotional charge to the often-depicted sterile environments. I also like the ambiguity in who the message is to, it could be for a patient or it could be for the staff”

Khan has always felt in awe of the NHS and its staff — a view that was validated in the process of making this work, which he reflects on as an existential experience. “It’s an environment in which the protections of day-to-day life are peeled back and you encounter elements like vulnerability and care very viscerally,” he says. “I felt very present within myself when making this work.”

The prolonged period that he spent up close with medical professionals also exposed the psychological aspect of their roles. “There’s a hugely performative aspect to the work, like a psychological uniform that is being worn every time they enter the building,” says Khan, explaining how this inspired the title of his book, Theatre. “An operation theatre is the ultimate stage — the patient is on the table, under the lights, and the team around them work to give the best performance consistently, every time. Although calm and clinical, there is a lot of underlying drama to what is happening, which feels very theatrical.”

Now, the people that Khan depicts are performing centre stage in the nation’s fight against Covid-19, often without the necessary personal protective equipment — one of the key issues making headlines during the pandemic in the UK. “It doesn’t surprise me that they have persisted to work without it, putting others ahead of themselves in the process,” says Khan. “There’s an amazing amount of camaraderie within the NHS, and I think we have really seen that through its response to all aspects of the virus’ effects.”

The second edition of Theatre by Lewis Khan is available to pre-order from The Light Light Recordings.

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