The Emotional Journey of Photographing a Face Transplant

Maggie Steber and Lynn Johnson reflect on capturing the story of Katie Stubblefield, the youngest face transplant patient in the U.S.

The face, detached from its organ donor, rested on a tray. The surgeons who had removed it stared, pausing before transplanting it. “It was just a breathless moment,” says photographer Lynn Johnson. “People were sort of stunned.”

Everything stopped for an instant of “reverence,” she says, as she recorded the moment. “And then they gathered themselves up and got down to stitching it on.”

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The remarkable photograph became the lead image in National Geographic magazine’s cover story on the surgery in the September issue.

Johnson was one of two veteran National Geographic photographers who documented Katie Stubblefield’s journey as her face, severely damaged during a suicide attempt with a rifle, was reconstructed and then replaced.

For two and a half years, photographer Maggie Steber followed Katie and her family, commuting from her home in Miami to spend weeklong stints at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where surgeons cared for Katie, and the Ronald McDonald House, where Katie lived when she wasn’t hospitalized. Steber did everything the Stubblefields did, leaving them only to sleep, and came to consider herself part of their family.

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“They would share their deepest thoughts with me,” Steber says. “That’s quite a privileged position. Sometimes photographers need to put down the camera and just listen to their subjects.”

But when the call came that a donor had been found, Steber was thousands of miles away in Dubai—too far to make it back in time. “They weren’t going to wait for me, and why should they?” Steber says. “I fell to my knees and wept.”

That’s when Johnson stepped in. “Lynn is a really sensitive photographer and a very good friend,” says Steber. “She’s like my sister. This is our story. We get to share it.”

During the 31-hour procedure, Johnson bounced between the Stubblefields and the surgeons. “There was a very casual kind of tension in the room,” she says.

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Johnson captured Katie’s transformation in the operating room, but Steber chronicled a family transformed by a new mission. “They were heartbroken and shocked at what happened, but they have embraced it,” Steber says of Katie’s parents, Robb and Alesia. “They are warriors. They’re like eagles who are protecting a young bird. And now Katie has a mission in her life. She can try to save other young lives.”

She also witnessed Katie’s physical and emotional agony when she suffered through surgeries to repair her injuries and then struggled with her new face. The experience was so intense that Steber sometimes had to call National Geographic photo editor Kurt Mutchler for a pep talk. “You just have to listen to them and have empathy for what they’re going through,” Mutchler says.

Steber decompressed on long walks, absorbed by Katie’s decision to shoot herself and the price she paid. “Sometimes life takes your life from you although it doesn’t kill you,” she says. “Katie paid for it over and over and over and over in ways that were extremely painful.”

Once she stopped photographing, Steber handed over thousands of images—shot on film—to Mutchler and his team. “It was probably four, five thousand pictures,” he says. With shorter shoots, Mutchler notes, it’s easier to construct a narrative. In this case, creating a coherent story out of years of photos was a real challenge, and some of both Mutchler’s and Steber’s favorites were left on the cutting-room floor.

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Katie takes a moment for herself in her room, a rare occurrence in the hospital, as doctors and others frequently stopped by to check on her progress. Her new face, with the sutures still in, remains quite swollen.

One did make it into the final story: an image of Katie sitting alone on her hospital bed after the transplant. As usual, says Steber, the room was “a flurry of constant activity. But nobody was talking to Katie. She was sitting there in her own little quiet moment of reflection.” It was a rare private moment. “In the end, we have to deal with ourselves.”

For Steber, Katie’s new face is much more than a medical marvel. “It’s not about how you look,” she says. “It’s about your spirit. Your face is a map of your life.”

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She hopes Katie’s story advances scientific knowledge and makes people think. “People look away from everything, don’t they?” she says. “They look away from pictures of starving children, of war. They have the choice. But then I think of all the people who will be very interested. Maybe there are some children who will become doctors one day because they see this. We have to think of the people who will be inspired and informed and changed by this.”