The global award in photography and sustainability

Ross McDonnell


Limbs, a newly published set of photographs by Ross McDonnell, presents the documentation of a set of improvised prosthetic legs that the artist captured at the Orthopedic Hospital in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

The limbs were left behind by patients as they were fitted for modern, custom-made prosthetic legs by staff of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). The hospital serves the semi-permanent battle space that has come to define Eastern Afghanistan throughout the country’s forty years of near-continuous conflict. For McDonnell, “Limbs” served to anthropomorphise the particular resilience and optimism of the Afghan people he spent years documenting.

Stripped of their surrounding context, McDonnell seeks to break from depictions of civilian casualties as well as the visual tropes that have come to define the Afghan people. The viewer is presented with the image of a prosthetic limb and invited to imagine the individual who took the time to adapt, construct or improvise their own prostheses. The photographs humanise and personalise a subject that we, perhaps, automatically associate with suffering.

McDonnell presents these prosthetics as sculptural objects. The individuals who created these prosthetics rejected – both by necessity (due to an acute scarcity of materials) and through their own creative impulse – what the medical establishment sets as nominal criteria for a prosthetic leg. Seemingly unconcerned with function, cosmesis & comfort; these individuals favoured radical adaptation, combined with a personal sense of expression in the creation of their bodily extensions. The results are both idiosyncratic and poignant. The star-speckled night sky. A fashionable boot. Even the spent casing of a Rocket Propelled Grenade, it seems, were viable materials for the Afghan amputee.

Experts state that the success of a prosthetic depends 10% on the object and 90% on the patient’s attitude to it. These images are testament to that attitude.