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Shooting the beautiful body: A conversation with photo journalist Max Aguilera-Hellweg

body_majestic_landscapePhotographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg, MD, shoots the most gorgeous photos of the human body. His pictures often capture moments when the body is at its most vulnerable, open and laid out on an operating table. Both stunning and startling, he's shot photos for Stanford Medicine magazine as well as for the giants in magazine publishing: National Geographic, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker.

Behind the lens is a fascinating and gentle man. At age 34, Aguilera-Hellweg decided to pause his photo career and go to medical school. He was so moved after taking a photo of an exposed spinal chord that he knew at that moment he wanted to be an "insider" in medicine, not an outsider looking in. As he recently told me:

That moment changed my life. Beside taking photographs, I decided this is who I wanted to be the rest of my life, this is where I wanted to explore. I want to look inside the human 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.

Aguilera-Hellweg left medicine in the second year of a three-year residency and returned to shooting photos. He told me, "I loved it, but I knew if I stayed on... I would never leave."

I asked him which photographer was his greatest influence and his response was 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 they did," he said. "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."

From his early years shooting from a small broken 35mm Canon that his father had repaired, Aguilera-Hellweg developed into a master craftsman detailing intimate portraits of the body majestic. Our complete conversation can be found in the winter issue of Stanford Medicine, a special on medicine and the arts.

Previously: What art and the humanities bring to medicine: a look from Stanford Medicine magazine and The amazing photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg
Photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

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