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Excerpt from “The Precipice”, published by Gnomic Book. (Tony Shirinos)

Tony Chirinos’ recently published book “The Precipice” (Gnomic Book, 2021) is a slim volume that packs a punch. The subject is not for the faint-hearted. The book is made up of images that Chirinos took in operating rooms and morgues during his career as a biomedical photographer.

It’s not that the photos are gory. They are not. But their heaviness makes the book a challenge for the reader. Basically, it asks questions about the nature of life and death. As Chirinos told me, “The truth is that living is both a luxury and a dilemma.”

These words and the photos in the book are particularly poignant for me today, because exactly one year ago I was on an operating table, hooked up to a bypass machine as a surgeon entered the arteries of my lungs to remove several blood clots.

I was knocked out the whole time, of course. The operation took over 10 hours and I woke up the next day, spaced out on fentanyl and with a tube stuck in my throat. I have no recollection of it. Chirinos’ photos give me some kind of indication of what it all must have looked like.

While the photos in “The Precipice” aren’t bloody, that doesn’t lessen their intensity. And that makes sense – the subject matter is just inherently heavy. Interestingly, there are also images that have somewhat religious connotations.

The tools used to perform medical feats, for example, are like religious objects – used in well-worn rituals set up in the hope of saving the patient and improving their life. That’s hope, anyway.

Photos are also an invitation to commune with death. There is something holy and sacred in the seriousness of this. These are things that we know exist. We don’t necessarily bring them up a lot in general conversation. But life and death are an integral part of our existence.

It’s hard not to approach matters of life and death with reverence. At least, that’s how I feel about it anyway. And I think Chirinos’ photographs approach it that way, sometimes. But, again, by their very nature, they can also be brutally direct.

In an essay in the book entitled “Between Science and the Sacred”, Eugenie Shinkle writes:

“Is death a spiritual or earthly affair? Does life cease when the light of the soul goes out or, more prosaically, does death take place slowly, when the functions of the body shut down? Faced with the end of life, should we trust religion, or the rationality of modern medicine? The Precipice suggests that these are false dichotomies. The operating room and the morgue, as Chirinos’ photographs suggest, are places where questions of life and death are posed on a continuum between science and the sacred.

Religious or not, this book presents us with very deep, if disconcerting, ruminations on life and death.

Today I can’t help meditating on life because the time I spent on this operating table, where I experienced many things that these photos illuminate, made the act possible to type my thoughts on this book. And I live daily with the vertical scar (we thoracic surgery survivors like to call them zippers – and it’s my “zipperversary”) that serves as a constant reminder.

“The Precipice” does two things for me. Looking at it through the lens of my own experience makes me grateful for the possibilities science has opened up for me, and by extension for all of us. And I’m grateful for the photos of Chirinos that remind us all, not just me, to reflect on life and death.

Unfortunately, this is a particularly good time to reflect on the things that underlie “The Precipice”. Death is still around us, but that seems even more the case now with a pandemic that has claimed a large number of lives and with all the brutal conflicts taking place across the world, including the one in Ukraine, producing images grizzly. How not to reflect on the questions that Chirinos asks us in his book?

You can see more of Chirinos’ work on his website, here. And you can read more about it on the Gnomic Book website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog dedicated to visual storytelling. This platform features captivating and diverse images from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you would like to submit a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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