'I'm not in hospice to die but to take photos'

Freelance photographer Alan Lee, 69, is dying from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He holds one last exhibition of pictures he took of his fellow patients at the Assisi Hospice.

Ailing freelance photographer showcases life in hospice with exhibition on fellow patients

Freelance photographer Alan Lee, 69, is dying. No doubt about that, he says wryly.

Mr Lee suffers from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive respiratory disease that causes breathing difficulties, and he is spending his last days at the Assisi Hospice.

Among his "last couple of wishes", he wants to showcase life in a hospice through his photographs. Last Wednesday, his exhibition of 19 portraits of his fellow patients was launched at the hospice located in Thomson Road.

"These are not sad pictures, not sob pictures. They show there's still a bit of life here and I hope people can see a bit of happiness here," he says of his exhibition, titled "Come Walk With Me". "Someone once said, if you can't add days to your life, add life to your days."

A spokesman for the hospice said the exhibition is the first to be initiated by a patient at the hospice.

The pictures show patients interacting with staff, volunteers and caregivers at its daycare centre, while engaged in activities such as music and arts and crafts or enjoying a massage or even a game of mahjong.

It was a demanding labour of love for Mr Lee, who used to be a photographer for Singapore Press Holdings magazines such as Her World and Home and Decor, as he finds it hard to hold up a camera.

Mr Alan Lee, 69, suffers from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive respiratory disease that causes breathing difficulties. He is spending his last days at the Assisi Hospice. His exhibition of 19 portraits of his fellow pati
Mr Alan Lee, 69, suffers from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive respiratory disease that causes breathing difficulties. He is spending his last days at the Assisi Hospice. His exhibition of 19 portraits of his fellow patients runs until the end of August. ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

ADDING LIFE TO LAST DAYS

These are not sad pictures, not sob pictures. They show there's still a bit of life here and I hope people can see a bit of happiness here. Someone once said, if you can't add days to your life, add life to your days.

MR ALAN LEE, on his exhibition, titled "Come Walk With Me".

Constantly short of breath and needing an oxygen tank to help him breathe, he says he knows "what it feels like to be drowning".

The divorcee with two adult sons who was admitted to the hospice in June uses a wheelchair, as walking leaves him breathless.

Even talking is tiring for him.

But while taking pictures from a wheelchair limits the range of angles he can shoot from,it is still a thrill to be able to photograph fellow patients, he says. Tongue in cheek, he adds: "A hospice is a place where one goes to when they are ready to die. I'm not ready to die, I didn't come here to die, I came here to take photographs."

He took about 70 pictures in a month, in black and white as the absence of colour forces the viewer to focus on the image, he says.

A friend sponsored the cost of holding the exhibition.

While the disease, first diagnosed eight years ago, has progressively robbed Mr Lee of his strength, he has not lost his sense of humour, his lifelong need for a cigarette, or his passion for photography and a glass of whisky. In fact, he has a few bottles of the liquor by his bedside.

The doctors said the disease has reached its end stage, he says, although they did not go into details about the remaining time he has.

He says: "I go through fear, doubt and depression. Like when I go to sleep, the person next to me is there. When I wake up, he has passed on. I have seen a few (of such cases) already, it's hard not to be affected.

"I fear the process of dying - that it will be painful and draggy. But there are happy moments here, like seeing old people having a good laugh or birthday celebrations.

"You see the sad but also the happy parts and we have all the medical attention we need given 24/7 by very caring caregivers."

The exhibition runs until the end of August. It is held at the Assisi Hospice's activity corner on level one.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline ''I'm not in hospice to die but to take photos''. Print Edition | Subscribe