Yao Shuai has taken a total of 10,000 photos for over 400 patients and their families in his spare time. He plans to eventually hold a photo exhibition or publish an album to record their stories.

Doctor takes photos of patients and their families to help them negotiate the final journey, Li Yingxue reports.

One doctor’s medicine is more than prescribing painkillers or drugs, vital though they are.

As the day shift at his hospital ends at 6 pm, Yao Shuai picks up a piece of equipment few other physicians would use. The office he uses has been converted into a simple photo studio. He takes pictures of patients set to embark on their final journey, often with family members close at hand.

Before he takes photos of his patients or their families, he asks a question that may seem at first glance insensitive but in actual fact is of immense benefit: “Are you afraid of death?”

Yao, a resident doctor in the department of cardiology at Tongzhou district hospital of traditional Chinese medicine in Nantong, Jiangsu province, believes the direct approach is more humane and truthful.

Since Aug 2016, Yao has taken portraits of his patients and their families in his spare time. So far, he has taken more than 10,000 photos of more than 400 people. He plans to hold a photo exhibition or publish an album to record their stories.

His images depict his patients’ deep, or shallow, wrinkles, their facial expressions, messy hair or even their fleeting delicate smiles.

He invites patients and their families to the studio, which is actually a corner of his boss’ office where Yao quickly sets up a light, reflector and unfolds a screen to give a white background.

Before taking the photos, Yao talks with each of his patients, but instead of talking about their fatal illness, they talk about a subject that is too often ignored: The end of their days.

“Are you terrified of mortality?” he asks.

“Sad, helpless, frank, happy, or indifferent, each patient has a unique state of mind to deal with it differently,” says Yao.

“Many people say they are not afraid of death, but when it’s coming, they often are.”

Yao realizes mortality is part of life. He thinks Chinese people lack sufficient education or understanding of this and know little about how to face it.

“Especially medical staff. We confront death often, but we haven’t actually been taught how to deal with it.

“I still don’t know how to prepare to face death, but I know it will come,” Yao says.

Yao Shuai.

As well as the discussion of death, Yao also likes to hear about his patients’ lives, such as their happiest memory, or their biggest regret and how they managed to negotiate life’s challenges.

Yao has asked these questions to hundreds of his patients and their relatives whose authentic images are recorded in the photos, including the distraught daughter of a patient, a smiling old woman and an elderly man with closed eyes.

“People who are sick have complicated or different facial expressions even though they are all in pain or distress, for example, gentle, upset, proud or defensive,” says the 30-year-old doctor.

Yao began taking photographs in college. One of the photographers he admires is Lyu Nan, who lived with patients suffering with mental distress and took photos of, and for, them.

“Lyu inspired me to find art in real life, instead of going somewhere to take photos,” says Yao.

The first patient Yao took a photo of was a retired teacher who had lung cancer.

The patient passed away before Yao had a chance to give it to him. He brought the photo to his funeral and presented it to his relatives.

Yao’s photos allow him to get closer to the patients and communicate better with them.

“I realized that patients I used to differentiate and identify from their bed number or their disease are unique. Behind each face, there’s a story,” Yao says.

“The patients in my wards are often aged, and have witnessed historic moments such as the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the reform and opening-up. I’m curious to know their stories.”

He recalls there was a patient who told him about the travails and suffering he endured when digging a river bed in the 1950s.

“He said the weather was so cold that the mud was frozen, and they stood in the water barefoot, digging the river for years. Some died and some were disabled,” Yao recalls.

All the photos are taken in black and white, as he thinks this better captures the essence of a person.

Some patients decline to have their photos taken but the majority are enthusiastic.

“Photography connects doctors and patients,” he says.

“Everyone wants to be heard, and they all have their own stories.”

Yao thinks that both medical science and photography provide a care for both the physical and mental aspects of his patients.

“Medical science respects the body, enabling patients to live more decently, while the photography respects people’s lives objectively,” says Yao.

Yao’s father had hepatitis B and Yao was offended by what he viewed as the medical profession’s indifference. This pushed him to become a doctor and he vowed to treat his patients with respect and warmth.

His first month as a hospital intern in 2013 had a profound influence and he wrote in his journal in English:”Too many people in need”.

Yao often smiles when talking with his patients.

“If a patient offered his or her hand to me because of the pain, I’ll hug him or her, hoping to help alleviate both the pain and that feeling of helplessness,” he says.

On the other hand, Yao notes, doctors need the trust and understanding of their patients.

Sometimes there is nothing they can do to prolong life. Doctors are not magicians.

As the final journey nears, patients and their families will have to deal with stress and grief.

Doctors are not immune to this, Yao says.

Yao rides his motorbike as a therapy to tackle any feelings of sadness or inadequacy or pressure related to the patients.

“I ride along the seaside, sometimes, for hours,” says Yao.

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