As a documentary photographer, Ian Willms is used to taking photographs of people in confronting situations. Yet in November of 2014, his work took on new, personal significance. While travelling Canada on an assignment, he received word that his father had been in a devastating motorcycle accident in South Africa. Willms left Canada to be at his bedside.
His father had suffered catastrophic spinal damage, broken ribs and punctured both lungs. He was intubated for a month, and later, had a tracheostomy inserted – which he would have for the rest of his life. Two months after his accident, he was transferred to Germany where he endured countless surgeries in an attempt to repair an ever worsening bed sore. He died by May the following year.
‘We Shall See’ is a series of more than 200 photographs that Willms captured in the aftermath of his father’s accident. With his father’s permission, each photograph was uploaded to Instagram, creating an online photographic journal of their experience in real time. The social media platform also became a way of keeping family and friends updated on his father’s condition.
However, ‘We Shall See’ is more than just a documentation of illness and injury. As an established photo-journalist, Willms is adept at capturing the full range of human experience. His photographs honour the ordinary, gritty and vulnerable moments of his subject’s lives. With the camera turned towards his own experience, these photographs become even more emotionally charged. Portraits of his father are recorded alongside photographs of objects commonly found in a hospital environment: A spoon, a tray, an IV pole, stacks of medical bills. Images are captured of hands held in final moments and family members sleeping in waiting rooms. Each photograph brings an incredible intimacy to the hospital environment which is so often seen as utilitarian and impersonal.
The series is also a testament to the redemptive power of art. Prior to his father’s accident, Willms describes their relationship as “tumultuous”. The two had been in contact infrequently for much of Willms’ childhood and adolescence. After years of not speaking, they reconnected as adults and began working on their relationship: a process that was made easier by their shared love of photography. In the weeks and months following the accident, Willms’ father encouraged him to continue taking photographs. They bonded over the project, which became a mutual expression of their trauma and grief. According to Willms, “It was the last gift he could give me”.
“It was the last gift he could give me.”
Generations of doctors and nurses have been trained due to the generosity of patients and their families, who are willing to share their most private and vulnerable moments in the hope that something worthwhile can come from their suffering. Ian Willms’ story is no exception. Much like his photography, Willms’ storytelling is disarmingly honest, candid and raw. In the spirit of his father who “set the tone for openness when it came to this project”, he gave the following interview:
How did this collection of photographs begin?
I started taking the photographs when my father was in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit), at a time when everything was out of my control. Photography was something that I could control and made me feel capable and present. My father had been a hobbyist photographer and he encouraged me to take the photos. When I asked him why, I distinctly remember him saying “I want something good to come from all of this shit”.
I repeatedly asked my father to tell me if there were things he didn’t want to be photographed, if I was was crossing boundaries. But he had found the whole experience in ICU so invasive that he didn’t feel as though he had any boundaries at all any more. As we were both in South Africa, it also became a way for me to communicate to everyone else how bad things were, what was going on.
“I repeatedly asked my father to tell me if there were things he didn’t want to be photographed, if I was was crossing boundaries. But he had found the whole experience in ICU so invasive that he didn’t feel as though he had any boundaries at all any more.”
Based on your experience during your father’s illness, is there anything you would like current and future doctors to know?
When giving a prognosis, many doctors always give worst case scenario. This is understandable, because the doctor doesn’t want to get blamed (for giving false hope). But it should be communicated that this is only the worst case scenario and not an absolute certainty. Most doctors we encountered would give us the worst case scenario and then keep us at arm’s length. But my father’s primary doctor in South Africa was very real with me. He would level with me and say “It might go this way, or it might go that way. Statistically, this is what we know, but this is what you might like to do.” He spoke to us more like a friend. It meant everything.
When we were in Germany we had much less interaction with doctors. This was due in part, to a language barrier but also because I was staying further away from the hospital and could not spend as much time there. There were brief interactions from doctors as they moved through the ward. I would like to say that patients need an advocate. If you’re the patient and you are lying in the hospital bed, your ability to remember details and strategise is greatly reduced. You may be able to say “I don’t want to be resuscitated if there is a cardiac arrest” but there are a lot of little things you don’t think to ask for. Yet, these are essential to patient care. My father had me, but a full time advocate is something every patient needs. I don’t know how it would be possible in the current medical system, but it is heartbreaking thinking about patients lying there alone with only occasional interaction from doctors.
“Having a full time advocate is something every patient needs”
Would you mind telling us a bit about the end of your father’s life?
My father had always been a very active man. He was a hunter and a sportsman. He was also quite a rebellious character. A few years prior to this motorcycle accident, he had gastric bypass surgery in Uruguay. He was incredibly worried about post surgical complications. I remember him saying to me: “I’ve got a gun in my suitcase. If things aren’t going well post-surgery, I’m going to ask you to take a walk”. He was sick of feeling old. He didn’t want to be maimed or disabled further. When he was in hospital in Germany after the accident, he spent months stuck in this horrible limbo. He couldn’t get to rehab because of the pressure sore but he couldn’t die either. He tried to commit suicide by overdosing on medication, but he was treated and admitted to ICU . When he stopped breathing a day later, there was a (unsuccessful) full on resuscitation attempt with broken ribs, the whole deal.
Do you know why he was resuscitated?
I’m still not sure. But, I’m certain in that moment, it is not what he would have wanted.
Looking back on this experience a few years later, how do you think photography helped you cope with your father’s illness and death?
The act of photographing this experience did a lot to contextualise it in my mind. I have horrific and traumatic memories, just like anyone else who goes through this kind of experience. Trauma is a like a wild dog. It will go anywhere if it doesn’t have any boundaries. Photography is a way of putting a box around it, keeping perspective on what it was and how it impacted you. If you don’t have a firm idea of what you went through, you can go crazy thinking about all the things that happened or might have happened . Photography does a lot to short-circuit that process.
“Trauma is a like a wild dog. It will go anywhere if it doesn’t have any boundaries. For me, photography is a way of putting a box around it, keeping perspective on what it was and how it impacted you.”
Ian Willms is a freelance photographer and co-founder of the Boreal Collective, a group of photographers ‘united by a desire to document humanity and it’s intricate realities in our rapidly evolving world.’ He is a contributor to a number of publications including the New York Times, Time Magazine and VICE. His Instagram can be found here.