Ross McDonnell’s Limbs walks a line between tragedy and human innovation. Recently shortlisted in Prix Pictet’s theme of Hope, the Irish filmmaker and photographer evokes a sense of tenaciousness in the aftermath of violence through his images of prosthetic legs crudely assembled in Afghanistan. Make-shift limbs cobbled together from an assortment of salvaged materials are objects which tell a deeper story of human survival, ingenuity, and determination to persevere.
The country has been embroiled in conflict for more than forty years. The first official war in a daisy chain of political unrest launched in 1978, just months before McDonnell’s birth in the late 70s. He began creating images there in 2007 for The Afghans and returned several times to produce a documentary project. It was in 2012 when McDonnell came across a collection of false limbs that had been shed at the Orthopedic Hospital in Jalalabad, Afghanistan after more comfortable medical replacements were provided to patients by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). Limbs nudges at unusual yet brutal reminders of the spoils of war, with leg amputations most commonly attributed to explosive devices such as IEDs (Improvised Explosion Devices).
The photographs initially read as objective documentation, much like artifacts or sculptures from a museum archive. They are evenly lit and descriptive. But upon closer inspection, the backdrop is also jury-rigged; each leg stands erect atop a plinth draped in a white hospital bedsheet. McDonnell divulges the low platform is a wooden step found within the hospital and placed upon a bed. An image-maker with limited access to studio equipment avails his own resourcefulness and, much like the prosthetic creations, McDonnell’s impromptu set impresses the practicality of imagination.
Moving beyond utilitarian solutions, these hand-crafted limbs can be quirky and reflective of both personality and the wearers’ outlook post-amputation. In one photograph, we see a constellation of stars and shapes whimsically drawn onto a wooden leg that calls to mind the plaster corsets Frida Kahlo would paint upon her body. Another prosthetic is colorful and sporty with a cushioned shoe wrapped with white tape that, from a distance, could possibly pass for a Reebok sneaker. In yet another example, a weathered limb is punctuated by a leather sandal, complete with a black, slouched sock. As McDonnell notes, “even the spent casing of a Rocket Propelled Grenade [is] viable material for the Afghan amputee.”
This approach seeks to avoid common pitfalls of an often frontal and direct display of civilian casualties. Rather than entertain stereotypes often placed upon the Afghan people, McDonnell strips a layer of human context in a way that remarkably makes the limbs anthropomorphic, and therefore more human in their own right. One can’t help but imagine what they might assemble from their own surroundings if circumstances were similar. As such, Limbs becomes a catalyst for empathy a symbol of human resilience.Editor’s Note: Check out the rest of this year’s Prix Pictet shortlist here.