Scientific images typically come from advanced imaging: MRI, CT, microscopes, and more. But the winner of this year’s Wellcome Image Awards, which designate the best scientific image in the fields of medicine and biology, stands out from photos of mouse retinas, pig eyes, brain language pathways, and parrot blood vessels. That’s because it’s not a photograph at all–it’s an artistic illustration of one man’s experience with chronic Crohn’s disease.
The illustration is a dark depiction of living with chronic illness. It focuses on a skeletal figure, designated “Stickman” in the work’s title, that sits atop a stone and makes a curious, aching gesture at the viewer, meant to convey chastisement at the artist for using his disease for inspiration. Framed by a regenerating tree and a hare, the image ultimately portrays a glimpse of hope amid the purgatory of pain. Rendered using computer graphic imagery, the image instead appears almost like an etching, reminiscent of the black-and-white engravings of Dutch artist Albrecht Dürer.
The winning illustration’s creator does commercial work in editorial, advertising, and book cover design–including for clients Saatchi & Saatchi, Penguin Books, and the BBC–and prefers to use his pen name Spooky Pooka for his personal illustrations. Pooka was diagnosed with the incurable Crohn’s disease two years ago, but he’s likely been battling it for most of his life. Seeking catharsis, he turned to art to represent the physical, emotional, and psychological toll the disease has taken on his body and mind over the years. He started drawing Stickman, whom he describes as an alter ego or archetype, about a year ago.
“Pain and nausea take you to a different place where you feel like a different person,” Pooka says. “He’s constructed out of sticks that I’ve modeled, which is a good metaphor for me, literally feeling like you’re made out of sticks.”
The Wellcome winner is the final in a series of six illustrations, all depicting the psychological reality of living with Crohn’s. One illustration in the series depicts the TNFa molecule, which is responsible for initiating the phase reaction that produces inflammation, the biggest factor in Crohn’s disease, which Pooka illustrates as a large stone monolith hanging over Stickman. In another, T-cells are depicted as an army of attackers, each with eyes–a nod to how easy it is to anthropomorphize disease, imagining these cells as vindictive.
The 20-year-old Wellcome competition was judged by experts in medical science and medical communication, and other less orthodox winners included a visualization of breast cancer commentary on Twitter, a comic-like illustration of medieval medical practitioners, and an illustration of the Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini. Last year’s overall winner was a beautiful watercolor painting of the Ebola virus.
But Pooka’s illustration of Crohn’s paints a different story than these other historically motivated images, precisely because it focuses so deeply on one person’s experience, validating the idea that a patient’s perception of disease is worthy of attention and understanding–and actually provides an important perspective for scientists and doctors who are looking for cures. The human experience is too nuanced for any high-resolution microscope to capture.