My father’s job, like many in this city, is parasitic. A professional photographer, he would have starved to death—along with his entire family—if it hadn’t been for Doctor Ruellan’s generous proposal which, in addition to providing him with a decent salary, set him free from the unpredictable tyranny of inspiration and allowed him to concentrate on an uncomplicated, mechanical task. Doctor Ruellan is the best eyelid surgeon in Paris. He works at the Hôpital des 15/20, and he never runs out of patients. Some of them even choose to wait for as long as a year for an appointment with him rather than going to a less renowned doctor. Our benefactor requires my father to take two sets of photographs: five close-ups—eyes open and closed—before the operation so as to record their initial state. The second set is taken once the surgery has been completed and the wounds have healed. So, however successful the work, we generally only ever see our clients twice. However, the doctor does occasionally make a mistake—no-one, not even he, is perfect—with one eye ending up slightly more closed, or open, than the other. Then the person in question reappears so we can take a new set for which they will have to pay another three hundred euros: my father isn’t to blame for the errors of surgeons. It may surprise you to learn that eyelid surgery is quite common and there are many reasons that a patient might undergo it, beginning with the aging process: people whose vanity insists on banishing any hint of old age from their face. However, there are also those disfigured in car crashes, explosions, fires and a whole series of other potential mishaps: eyelids are remarkably delicate.
At our studio, which is nearby Place Gambetta, my father has framed some photographs he took during his youth: a medieval bridge, a gypsy woman hanging clothes next to her trailer and a sculpture exhibited in the Luxemburg Gardens for which he won a prize for youth photography in the city of Rennes. A brief glance is enough to confirm that a long time ago, my old man had talent. My father also has more recent works on his walls: the face of a very beautiful boy who died in Ruellan’s operating theater (an issue with the anesthetic), his body lying on the operating table, bathed in very bright, almost celestial light shining in through the window.
I started to work in the studio when I was fifteen and had decided to leave school. My father needed an assistant and so I joined his team. It was then that I learned the trade of the medical photographer specializing in ophthalmology. Later, however, I was entrusted with more of the office work, including the accounts. Rarely do I set out into the city or countryside in search of a scene to tempt my fickle lens. When I do go out, I generally do so without my camera, either because I forget or I’m afraid of losing it. I confess, however, that often when I’m walking down the street or through the halls of a building I do suddenly get the urge to take a photo, not of landscapes or bridges like my father once did, but unusual eyelids I’ve noticed in the crowd. I find that specific body part fascinating: I have had a privileged view of it since I was young and I never tire of detecting new specimens. Because of its habit of flickering in and out of view, one must stay alert if they are to notice something worthwhile. The photographer must blink at a different rhythm to the subject of the study and capture the moment when the eye closes like a playful oyster. I have come to believe that this requires a special kind of intuition, like that of a lepidopterist. After all, the batting of an eyelid and the fluttering of wings are very similar phenomena.
I am one of the very few people who are passionate about their work and, in this regard, I consider myself very lucky. But don’t get me wrong: our trade does have its drawbacks. One comes into contact with all manner of individuals, many of them in very difficult situations. The eyelids that pass through these doors are almost exclusively horrible; when they don’t inspire outright disgust, they certainly arouse pity. It’s no surprise that their owners choose to have surgery. After a couple of months of convalescence, when the patients, now transformed, return for their second set of photographs, we can breathe more freely. The improvement is very rarely one hundred percent but it can still completely change a face, an expression or a demeanor. The eyes appear more balanced but when one looks closely—and especially when one has seen thousands of faces transformed by the same hand—one notices something terrible: they all look alike. It’s as though Doctor Ruellan had left his distinctive brand on all his patients, a subtle but distinctive hallmark. In spite of its attendant pleasures, this profession eventually leaves one as indifferent as any other. I don’t remember many truly remarkable cases passing through our studio. When one does appear, I go to my father while he prepares the film in the back and ask him if he will let me be the one to release the shutter. He always agrees, even if he is bewildered by my sudden interest.
One of these finds came up just under a year ago, last November. In the winter, the studio, which is on the ground floor of an old factory, becomes unbearably damp and it’s preferable to go outside rather than remain in the freezing cave, which is kept dark because of the requirements of the profession. That afternoon my father had gone out and I was shivering by the door, watching the rain come and go, cursing the client, who was almost a quarter of an hour late. When she finally appeared behind the gate, I was surprised to see that she was so young. She must have been twenty at the most. A black, waterproof hat covered her head and dripped onto her long hair. Her left eyelid hung three millimeters lower than her right one. Both eyes had a dreamy gaze, but the left was possessed of an abnormal degree of sensuality that seemed to weigh it down. As I observed her, a curious sensation came over me, the kind of pleasant inferiority that I often feel in the presence of excessively beautiful women.
With exasperating curtness, as though she was unaware that she was late, she asked which floor the photographer was on. She must have assumed that I was the porter.
“He’s here,” I told her. “You’re standing at his door.” I opened the door and with a delight that she couldn’t detect from where she was standing, turned on all the lamps, as in a ballroom when a member of the royal family enters. Once inside she took off her hat and her long, black hair looked like a continuation of the rain. Like every other client, she informed me that she had an appointment with Doctor Ruellan to fix her problem.
I almost replied What problem? You’re perfect, but I held back. She was so young… I didn’t want to upset her, so I just mouthed banalities.
“You don’t look like a Parisian, where are you from?”
“Picardy,” she said shyly, avoiding eye contact, as the patients tend to do. This time, however, instead of being thankful, I found her evasiveness exasperating. I would have given anything just to stare at that heavy but fragile eyelid all afternoon and even more to have those eyes look back at me.
“Do you like Paris?” I asked, feigning indifference.
“Yes, but I can’t stay for very long. In fact I only came for the operation.”
“Paris will get to you, you can be sure of that. When you least suspect it, you’ll be on your way to live here.”
The girl smiled, bowing her head.
“I don’t think so. I’d like to get back to Pontoise as soon as possible. I don’t like missing school for something like this.”
The sole idea that this woman lived in another city was enough to depress me. I started to get irritable. Suddenly, maybe a little brusquely, I ended the conversation and went off to get the film.
“Sit here,” I said shortly when I got back. Never in my professional life had I been so unfriendly. The girl sat down on the bench and flicked back her hair, leaving her face uncovered.
“I don’t know if you’re aware of this,” I said, putting on a compassionate tone. “But the results are never perfect. Your eye will never be exactly the same as the other one. Has the doctor explained that to you?”
She nodded in silence.
“But he also told me that the two eyelids would be the same height. That’s enough for me.”
I was tempted to show her a set of photographs of unsuccessful operations in an attempt to dissuade her. I considered telling her that whatever happened she’d bear the unmistakable mark of patients operated on by Doctor Ruellan; she’d be joining a tribe of mutants. But I wasn’t brave enough. Without saying a word, I hung the white backing cloth behind her head, pointing the lamp at her eyes. Instead of the usual five shots, I took fifteen photographs and would have gone on until nightfall if my father hadn’t arrived.
When I heard him come in, I switched off the lamps. The young woman stood up and went over to the counter to write out a check on which I read her name in girlish handwriting.
“Wish me luck,” she said. “I’ll see you in a couple of months.”
I can’t describe the sense of disillusionment I felt that afternoon. I developed the photos immediately and put the more conventional ones in an envelope with the hospital’s logo on it. I kept the one that I judged to be best in my drawer: a dreamy, obscene, head-on shot.
I tried to forget her but it was useless. For three months I waited in genuine fear for her to come back for her second set. I was determined not to be there. Every Monday, I checked my father’s schedule so as to know when to make myself scarce. But she never came. One afternoon at the beginning of summer, as I was walking along the docks in search of interesting eyelids, I saw her again. The Seine was flowing slowly, the stones reflected the dark green of the water and the flashes of the waves. She was looking at the river too, so we almost bumped into each other. To my great surprise, her eyes hadn’t changed. I greeted her politely, doing everything I could to conceal my joy, but after a few minutes I couldn’t hold back any longer.
“Did you change your mind?” I asked. “Did you decide not to have the operation?”
“The doctor was called away and we had to reschedule at the end of the school year. I’ll be going into the hospital tomorrow. As I don’t have any family in the city, I’ll be interned for three days.”
“How are your studies going?”
“Last week I took an exam at the Sorbonne,” she answered with a smile. “I’d like to move to Paris.”
She seemed happy. I saw the hopeful expression that patients often have prior to surgery in her gaze. It makes their deformed faces seem more honest.
I invited her for an ice-cream on Isle Saint-Louis. A jazz band was playing nearby and although we couldn’t see the musicians from where we were, we could hear the music as though it was coming from the river itself. The sunlight tinted her eyelids orange. We walked for several hours, sometimes in silence, sometimes discussing the things we saw around us, the city or her hopes for the future. If I’d have brought my camera I’d have some evidence, not just of the existence of the ideal woman but also the happiest day of my life.
When night fell I walked her back to the hotel where she was staying, a dive near Bonne Nouvelle. We spent the night together on a rickety bed, in constant danger of falling to the ground. Once we were naked, the twenty year difference between us became more obvious. I kissed her eyelids over and over again and when I had tired of that I asked her not to close her eyes so I could continue to enjoy those extra three millimeters, the three millimeters of voluptuousness that drove me crazy. From the first embrace to the moment when, exhausted, I switched off the lamp, I felt a pressing need to talk her out of it. So, discarding my previous reticence and inhibitions, I begged her not to have the operation. I asked her to stay with me just the way she was, right at that moment. But she thought that I was only flattering her, telling the grandiose lies that one tends to tell in such moments.
We barely slept that night. If only Doctor Ruellan had known! He always insisted that his patients got a full night’s rest before the surgery. She arrived at the pre-operation chamber with rings under her eyes that only emphasized their beauty. I promised that I’d stay with her until the last moment and then that I would come and see her immediately once she had woken up from the anesthesia. But I couldn’t do it: when the nurse came in to take her into the operating theater, I slipped away into the elevator.
I left the hospital with my heart in pieces, like someone experiencing a defeat for the first time in their lives. I thought of her so much the next day. I imagined her waking up alone, in that hostile room bathed in the smell of disinfectant. I would have loved to be able to be there to keep her company and I would have been if so much hadn’t been at stake: my memories, my images of those eyes, would have disappeared completely if I had seen them afterward, identical to those of all Doctor Ruellan’s other patients.
Some afternoons, especially during the slow periods when the customers are utterly disappointing, I put her photograph on my desk and gaze at it for a few minutes. When I do so, I am filled with a suffocating sensation born of infinite hatred toward our benefactor, as though his scalpel had somehow mutilated me as well. I haven’t gone out with my camera since then. The docks of the Seine no longer hold any mysteries for me.
*Featured image: Dror Daum, At the Pick-Up (Untitled 17), 44×55 cm, 2014.