The body majestic

A conversation with physician-photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg

This interview was condensed and edited by Paul Costello
Photography by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg, MD, focuses his lens on some of the most beautiful shots of all: details of the human body. He's a master at portraying the intimate and the sacred. His photos are visually stunning, often capturing moments when the human body is at its most vulnerable, open and splayed on an operating table.

Max Aguilera-Hellweg uses photography to explore the body's mysteries. This photo is from his book of robot portraits, Humanoid, forthcoming in March 2017.

Early in his career, he was hired as an apprentice to the iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz. From her, he learned not only the art of photography but also the discipline of persistence. That attribute came in handy when, at age 34, he decided to interrupt his career in photography and attend medical school at Tulane University. He received his MD in 2004.  

Aguilera-Hellweg has photographed arresting pictures for this magazine as well as for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and many others. In his book The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery, he surprises us with images that make us stop and ponder the intricate and awe-inspiring nature of the human body. For this issue of Stanford Medicine on art and medicine, it made perfect sense to talk to an artist and physician who personifies medicine and the muse.

Executive editor Paul Costello caught up with Aguilera-Hellweg between shoots at his home in Connecticut.

Costello: How did your journey into photography begin?

Aguilera-Hellweg: Looking in my parents’ closet for my mom’s purses for money to go buy candy, I came across my father’s photo albums from World War II in the Pacific. I’d never seen pictures like this. To see bombs exploding, it was a shock. It was like this whole world had opened up to me to see what was forbidden. I became obsessed about looking at the photographs. It just opened up the power of photography.

Costello: When did you get your first camera?

Aguilera-Hellweg: My father worked in a warehouse when I was in 10th grade. A 35mm Canon camera, it was called a Canon S, had fallen from a shelf at the warehouse. It was broken and they gave it to my dad. We just had to get it repaired.

Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Costello: Here you have this great career in photography, and then at 34, you decide to go to medical school?  

Aguilera-Hellweg: I was shooting a surgeon for an article in Savvy magazine. It was my first time in the operating room, and I walk in there, and normally you would see a patient lying on a bed prone, but she had him hanging vertically, which allowed his vertebrae to be stretched out. I was busy shooting her hand and at one moment she steps aside and says, “Here. Take this picture.” There was an exposed spinal cord. It was the most intimate, most beautiful, most precious place I’d ever seen in my whole life. It was like going to the moon. That moment changed my life. Besides taking the photograph, I decided this is who I wanted to be the rest of my life, this is where I wanted to explore. I wanted to look inside the body and see what this incredible mystery was. Becoming a doctor allowed me to cross that line from having the secondary experience as a photographer to having the primary experience of my subjects.

Costello: You left medicine after the second year of a three-year residency. Why?

Aguilera-Hellweg: I loved it but I knew that if I stayed on for the extra years of training that I needed, I would never leave. At that time, I could leave freely. I could go back and pursue the things that I truly love, taking photographs and making films. It was a tremendous experience going through medical training and caring for patients.

Costello: How do you use your medical training for your art?

Aguilera-Hellweg: First, it has given me a level of depth and understanding of the human body and human nature. As a photojournalist, basically I am always persistent. I don’t take no for an answer. In a health care setting, I do take no for an answer. I am acutely aware of the stress the patient’s under or the doctor is under and what might go wrong. I have a proper sense of reality in the operating room. It is reverential.

Costello: Do you have a favorite medical photo?

Aguilera-Hellweg: My most favorite picture is a photograph I took at an autopsy. His gut is open and you see all his viscera but they are using a common soup ladle to get out the fluids that had dispersed into his open abdominal area. There are two doctors in the photo; one has a Pyrex quart-size measuring cup in his hand, in which they were collecting the fluids. A soup ladle and a Pyrex cup. It just was so truthful. It just is what it is. Nothing more. Nothing less.  

Costello: Is there a bridge you hope to create between art and medicine?

Aguilera-Hellweg: I would hope it is to accept our frailty, to accept our mortality and to appreciate life. When I was taking care of patients, most people thought they were going to live forever. Well, we don’t. Hopefully, my photography demystifies the human body and makes people appreciate their lives. Most people look at hospitals from afar. You drive by, “Oh, there’s a hospital.” There are incredible things going on in a hospital all day long, all night long — stories of people fighting for survival. When you drive by, you obviously just see an outside structure and not the life journeys going on at a heightened level. As a photographer, I am a witness.

Costello: Who is your greatest influence?

Aguilera-Hellweg: Diane Arbus. What I love about photographers like Arbus is that you can feel in their work that they couldn’t do anything other than the photograph that they did. They were so moved by the subject it is as if that photo was their next breath or next meal. Arbus had that. She had to take the pictures that she took.   

Costello: Why is storytelling important to the medical community?

Aguilera-Hellweg: I think a lot of people are afraid of science, afraid of medicine, their own bodies and their own health, their anatomy and their blood. The human story that I see unfold is incredible and the human story needs to be told. By telling this human story, you demystify it and make it more accessible. Being a witness to the human body is similar for me to finding the stash of my father’s World War II photographs. A hidden world opened up and I feel privileged to enter it, to witness it and to share it.

Paul Costello is the School of Medicine's chief communications officer. Email him at paul.costello@stanford.edu.

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