A Portrait of our National Health Service

Lewis Khan is a London-based photographer and filmmaker specialising in social documentary. Since graduating from UWE in Bristol, where he studied photography, he has won the 2014 Shuffle Film Festival Short Film Prize for his moving portrayal of George, a man living on the fringes of South London. He has also worked on commissions for a number of well-respected publications, including the FT Weekend Magazine.

Khan’s photograph that was selected for Portrait of Britain 2017 depicts his subject, Gina, in an operating theatre after performing surgery. The portrait was taken during Khan’s time as Artist in Residence at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. During this residency, he produced a series called ‘Our NHS’, which documented the experiences of staff and patients at the hospital. The images seek to capture the emotional impact of a life spent working in the NHS, particularly during this time of difficulty within the service. Gina’s portrait is a compelling insight into the experiences of the doctors and nurses striving to keep the NHS on its feet.


© Lewis Khan

How did you create the selected portrait that you entered into Portrait of Britain, and what is the story behind it?

The selected portrait was taken in an operating theatre at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital just after an operation had finished and the staff had cleaned and prepped the room for the next patient. Gina gave me a few precious minutes and sat for this portrait in the corner of the theatre.

Was the portrait part of a wider project? If so, can you tell me about the project? How has it developed since your photograph was selected for Portrait of Britain?

The portrait is from a series produced during an artist residency at The Chelsea &  Westminster Hospital. I worked on a commission for the hospital arts charity CW+, creating some artwork for the hospital walls. Following that they invited me to work on a more long term self-initiated project within the hospital itself. I spent 18 months on and off embedding myself into clinical situations within the hospital, producing a series that explores ideas around strength and fragility.

© Lewis Khan

How do you think you have benefited from being selected?

Being selected for Portrait of Britain was great, it provided a platform for my work to be seen by a new audience both inside and outside of the photographic community. The visual landscape of the public domain is so clogged up with advertising, the idea of appropriating those spaces for the dissemination of artwork I thought was really strong.

Can you tell us a bit about the new project you’ve been working on?

I’ve been working on a project recently that takes as its starting point the experience of loss, and subsequently belonging. The work is a web of associations, bringing together new and past images that were originally taken for a mix of intents and purposes.


© Lewis Khan

How do you choose and work with subjects to achieve your final image?

This really depends on lots of varying factors, I don’t have a set practical formula that I work to. Generally a portrait will be the result of some kind of relationship or interaction, so it’s more that initial or sustained engagement with a person that I am looking for rather than the picture itself.

What do you think makes for a compelling portrait?

I feel like you can’t show too much, there has to be a balance of what you can read into the image and what you don’t know.

© Lewis Khan

Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?

Portrait photography is a very particular way of experiencing the people and environment around you. The photographs that result are the product of the relationship between yourself and your subject. The strength that the relationship gives your images shouldn’t be overlooked in a rush to take pictures.

Future generations will look to Portrait of Britain 2019 to see the face of the nation in a historic moment. What will it look like? Enter your work today!  

© Lewis Khan