Björn H. Larsson Ask – Child Injured by Burns – the eight-year-old Jessica and her new skin, 1981

Björn H. Larsson Ask – Child Injured by Burns – the eight-year-old Jessica and her new skin, 1981

The skin transplant operation lasted for three full days, after the eight-year-old Jessica fell victim to a fire in her apartment block. The Swedish photographer Björn H. Larsson Ask captured the operation and healing process with a moving intensity. In 1981, the series earned him the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.

It is the most horrific scenario imaginable: the home where you live and sleep suddenly becomes an inferno. Great waves of flame engulf the building, the beams burn brightly, and your child, who has just turned eight, is caught right in the middle. At the last moment, her father manages to rescue her, bringing her to the closest hospital, where she spends the next three days in surgery. 70 percent of her skin needs to be replaced. 

“Child Injured by Burns – the eight-year-old Jessica and her new skin” is the title of the LOBA 1981 award-winning series. It tells the story of a young girl who, as a result of a fire in rural Sweden, lost the life she had known until then, only to be given a new and different life thanks to the medical treatment she received. Björn H. Larsson Ask closely followed Jessica’s story, while she was in hospital. His pictures are a testimony to the hard battle fought for a human being’s most precious possession. They reveal the suffering, the agony, and the consequences of a stroke of fate that can never be fully erased, leaving its mark branded on the memory of every person who witnesses it.

Wounds, burnt skin, screams – what the pictures reveal is close to unbearable – a shock, a trauma. The first impulse is to look away; but anyone who takes a second or third look at the black and white pictures will be able to recognise a common goal evident in them all. It is hope that is reflected in every image; the prospect of a future. Larsson Ask documented the medical procedures as closely as he captured the tender care shown by the doctors, physiotherapists and nurses towards the young girl. Among the pictures is one with a smile on Jessica’s face – standing out like a beacon of light and seeming to offer an optimistic chance for the viewers themselves to be rescued. When the father joyfully holds the recovered girl in his arms, it is a moment of saving grace for all those involved. 

Larsson Ask was committed to truthfulness in this series. His pictures do not deny or hide anything; they do not blur reality; but rather show the real agony of the intervention. Though he got very close to his protagonists, it seems as though his camera was invisible to everyone else. At its foundation, the Leica Oskar Barnack Award committed itself to honouring photographers whose series reveal “a keen capacity for observation and a vivid way of expressing the relationship between humanity and the environment”. The 1981 winner certainly fulfilled these criteriain an unforgettable way.

(Text written in 2020)

Björn H. Larsson Ask

was born in Västerås, Sweden, in 1940. He worked as a photo journalist for S.E. Magazine and Svenska Dagbladet. In 1969, he received the Grand Journalist Award for a reportage on the Biafra war. He lives in Thailand.