“The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza” by Greg Kahn

Amalia Mendoza turns her head as she is fitted with a wax prosthetic, a template for David Trainer to make a mold for her new face

A few months ago at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, photojournalist Greg Kahn presented his extraordinary story “The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza”.

In 2001 a woman named Amalia Mendoza was in a car accident on a rural Colombian road which resulted in the loss of most of her face including her hair, both eyes, nose, and sections of her skull. After years of frustration, one of Amalia’s daughters brought her to America to seek the help of David Trainer, a specialist in facial prosthetics, in the hopes he could give Mendoza her identity back.

Watching Amalia’s story unfold, I was so struck by Greg’s visual story-telling and the intimacy of his images. One had the sense that he was capturing the story from the inside and had earned Amalia and her family’s trust in a way that rendered him invisible–quite a feat given the difficult subject matter. Greg’s work so beautifully depicts Amalia’s gradual transformation and her eventual return to her life in Colombia where many see her almost as having returned from the dead.

While this story could so easily feel sensationalized, Greg’s respectful approach really captures Amalia’s humanity and by the end of the piece, one feels so powerfully her renewed sense of connection to the world as, for instance, she returns to her restaurant and animatedly tells the gathered crowd about her trip to America. For a woman who could barely leave her home before, this moment just embodies her return to life and the viewer cannot help but celebrate alongside her.

I asked Greg if he could choose an image to talk about for this blog and explain why he felt it was significant. He chose the above image and here, in his own words, he says why:

“Amalia originally had been quite shy. It’s not hard to imagine if I lost my face, my visual identity, how timid I would be because of my lack of vision and my perception that everyone was staring at me. Even though she had a full voice, Amalia always talked softly, as if not to draw any additional attention to herself. I’m sure her knowledge of someone taking photos of her constantly didn’t help with her self-consciousness.

So we were all crammed into this very small patient room at David Trainer’s office. He was in the process of sculpting the wax face that would be used to make the final mold for Amalia’s new prosthetic. Trainer used a standard face to start, and then carve away the wax to make the final product. After a lot of initial carving, he went to where Amalia was sitting and placed it on her face to see if the shape was headed in the right direction.

As soon as the wax touched her skin, there was a transformation in Amalia. Her head lifted up, her shoulder broadened. You could see the signs of life beginning. It was such a powerful moment to witness. She had no knowledge of what this wax mold looked like, but she could feel, just by the way it rested on her face, that this was what she had been waiting for. Her confidence only grew from there and within a couple weeks, Amalia was back on a plane to Colombia to reunite with friends and family.”

To watch Greg’s multi media piece, click on The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza

You can also find a slide show version of the story at Greg’s website: gregkahn.com

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