Artist Q&A: Lewis Khan

Lewis Khan is a photographic artist from London. His portrait based work is a study of emotion, relationships, and identity.

Lewis was invited by CW+ to undertake a four year Artist Residency, working across Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and West Middlesex University Hospital. Shadowing Consultant Oncologist Mark Bower, Khan spent time learning about the clinical environment and understanding the emotional impact of a hospital setting on both staff and patients.

The resulting project, Theatre, offers a unique view of strength and fragility with the context of the UK healthcare system.

Lewis Khan

Lewis, tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

I’m 29, from London. I first got into photography when I was 15, my dad had an analogue SLR camera that I started experimenting with photographing the environment and people immediately around me. The interest grew and grew from there and I’ve been doing it since.

Lewis Khan, Theatre, Artwork
Lewis Khan, Theatre, Handprint

What attracted you to the residency with CW+?

The invitation from CW+ represented the chance to work in a self-initiated way within a highly restricted environment. The NHS is a subject close to my heart, and I was interested in this body of work being a contribution to the conversation around it.

Lewis Khan Theatre Patient

What has your experience been like doing a residency in a hospital environment? Did it meet your expectations?

Working in the hospital definitely sparks a lot of existential thought; life, health, your body, your mind. And I felt very present within myself when making this work.

It’s an environment in which the protections of day-to-day life are peeled back and elements like vulnerability and care are encountered very viscerally. This was a super powerful experience, and it’s why I’ve kept coming back to the concept of strength and fragility as a means to frame the work I’ve made there.

Lewis Khan, Theatre, Nurse 2
Lewis Khan, Theatre, Nurse

What projects emerged from your time on location? How did you introduce and explain your work to staff and patients?

The main project to come out of my residency in the hospitals is entitled Theatre, and has just been published as a limited edition photo book by The Lost Light Recordings. Theatre is both a study of human strength and fragility, and a celebration of the NHS.

When I started working in the hospital I felt like I’d seen the often-mediated hospital images before, usually either overly superficial or sensationalist. I didn’t want to do either of those things, and was looking for a subtler authenticity.

The immediate themes I arrived at within the project are mortality & well-being, strength & fragility, the clinical & the sentimental. These are what I mentally distilled the hospital and it’s environment down to, and what I subsequently used as a working guide for myself. The hospital is a very juxtaposed place and whatever extreme might exist is balanced with an opposite extreme right alongside it, so this idea of themes in dichotomy really made sense to me.

I tried to strike a balance aesthetically within Theatre between realism and abstraction. On the one hand I think it’s important to be artistically interpreting the subject, but equally it’s important not to be guilty of naval-gazing – especially when the subject matter you are dealing with is so sensitive.

In terms of approaching staff and patients, I would generally be partnered up with a particular member of staff in a particular dept at any one time, and my approach was to shadow that member of staff for a while before bringing a camera to the hospital. Sometimes that shadowing process would be for a long time, sometimes not so long, but it was all about assimilating myself to the environment – trying to understand some of the ebbs and flows both physically and emotionally.

Then only when it felt right would I start bringing my camera along, and bit by bit start making photos.

Lewis Khan, Theatre, Patient room

What will stay with you about this experience? Have there been any highlights?

One of the big learning experiences for me in this project was seeing how psychological as well as physical the jobs being carried out by the medical teams are, and also how potentially affecting the roles can be on them personally. This is in part where the title Theatre came from, having to put aside personal affectations and be that medical professional every time you enter the building is a hugely performative thing.

It’s a separation of personal life and professional life quite unlike most places of work in that their day-to-day involves taking other people’s lives into their hands. An operating theatre is the ultimate stage – the patient on the table under the lights, the team around working to give the best performance consistently every time. Although calm and clinical there is a lot of underlying drama to what is happening that feels very theatrical. This was a very powerful thing to observe and get to understand.

Lewis Khan, Theatre, Staff

What do you hope people will take away from your photography and what sort of response have you received since releasing Theatre?

The response has been amazing, really touching actually some of the messages I got. We sold out of the first edition in a week, and are onto the second edition now.

Within the photos there are elements of resilience, beauty, and fragility. I think to focus on just one of these elements would be to make something superficial, and so I hope through this combination there is an authenticity about what the work is celebrating, and also what stands to be lost.

Thanks so much for chatting to us Lewis! Finally, what advice would you give to other artists who want to work in a hospital setting?

I’d be super interested to see what other artists do within the hospital environment. I think my only advice would be to go forward with patience and an open mind.

Lewis Khan Theatre Family