The photographer who documented the final two weeks of life of Tony Blair's former pollster has given an intimate account of the "direct, delightful, sad and sobering conversations" he had in order to create a portrait of a man who he did not know.
The below photo essay accompanies a film and book: When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone.
"Hi Phillip. Adrian Steirn here. Matthew told me to make contact to see if today suited you for a chat."
"Sure. Am at the Royal Marsden Hospital in the Fulham Road having chemo. Pop over here if you would like. I am clear all day. Be great to talk. Best Philip."
I arrived into smallish room in the Marsden Hospital in London. Concerned that I was running late. Delayed by a city that I didn't know very well. Concerned that a man with terminal illness doesn't have time to waste. I really didn't know what to expect. I had never experienced chemotherapy ﬁrst hand like this. I tried to detach so that I could do my job but couldn't accept the detachment as anything other than cowardice on my behalf. This was an odd moment for me. Going to meet a man who was confronting his mortality sooner than he had hoped whilst he pumped himself with drugs to buy more time. Surely the minutes and seconds became relevant for a man like Philip Gould.
As I walked into the room I was confronted by a whippet thin man with prominent ears and teeth. Highly intelligent eyes and a very being so full of energy that I could not have imagined a man more at odds with his surroundings. This was a man who would not let me be a coward. He wasn't going to let me detach. I shook his hand, made a bit of a fuss as I placed my bag and camera down and tried to buy some time to collect my thoughts.
It turns out I was wrong about the concept of time. At the end of our one and a half hours of direct, delightful, sad and sobering conversation Philip had convinced me that time had become irrelevant to him. As the constant of his death became ever closer, he lived for moments. Time was a completely futile concept for him. I asked him whether he looked forward to tomorrow. "Absolutely" he replied, then paused, "Actually I rather look forward to today." We spoke of many things as I started to scratch the surface and he analysed whether I was worth a moment. We naturally introduced humour into the conversation at times to protect ourselves.
"You sound like you're enjoying the attention Philip. Would you recommend dying to anyone?" I said as he sat like a cat on the hospital bed.
"Oh absolutely Adrian, I mean it's great, I should have done it years ago" He shot back, the sparkle in his eyes almost hiding the shadow of regret.
I liked this man. I had engaged with this man. I had fallen down the rabbit hole.
Eventually we came around to his portrait. "I would like to shoot you in the cemetery at Highgate, at the plot, the one you have chosen." He liked the idea. It was strong enough to appeal to his male ego. The concept of owning his death appealed to him.
"It's a lovely place" he reassured me "and I will be spending an awfully long time there." I nodded uncertain whether to see the humour. "Let me speak to Gail my wife and see if I can get the go ahead." We both knew he would. His death, his moments.
18 October 2011 8.02PM
"Great to meet you today. We were both inspired. Gail is very happy with the whole thing and so you can move ahead. Very best Philip"
25 October 2011 10.13 AM
"Hi Mate, what time suits you - if at all - today for a visitor. Adrian"
"About 2 is great. I am at 15 Park Square East. Philip"
I walked into a beautiful house. Not beautiful in the sense of unaffordably beautiful or even necessarily sophisticated. Beautiful in that the space made me feel happy. "This is a ****ing nice house mate" I said as I followed him up the stairs. "It's really surprising to me that you Australians haven't taken over the world you're so eloquent" he quipped over his shoulder as he showed me to a beautiful room ﬁlled with Autumn light overlooking Regent's Park. He sat himself down into a comfortable couch that engulfed his fragility. He was so light that he almost hovered above the fat feather ﬁlled pillows on which he sat. "I have been looking at the trees and the changing light and they are so beautiful" he gushed. I nodded and told him that I had to tell him something before we started that had been weighing heavily upon my mind. "I am an Australian living in Africa and before being asked to photograph you I had never heard of 'New Labour' and nor do I think that it will alter my life now that I do know about it." There was a pause. He looked slightly shocked. "Well that doesn't really matter" he responded, clearly devastated. "I think it does matter Philip, because before you started dying, before you embraced your death zone as you like to call it, I think that it went a long way to deﬁning your perception of yourself."
He looked at me and acceded. "Yes, politics is important to me, it should be important to everybody."
I shook my head. "But it's not Philip, whether that be wrong or right, moral or immoral, it simply isn't a signiﬁcant factor or process in some people's lives. Death is though. What you are doing - your attitude to death is important to everybody. Not everybody votes but everybody dies"
With that he burst out laughing. I breathed a sigh of relief. "Perhaps that should be my campaign slogan for my reinvention of death - not everybody votes but everybody dies" I started laughing with him - "now you have combined death and politics."
"Yes I am a clever bastard" he said and with that we sat for two hours and I listened to a man redeﬁne the process of death in the most extraordinary and inspirational fashion imaginable.
He talked of his reconnection with his sister, his paternal and inﬁnite pride for his daughters and his relationship with his wife Gail. Dying had allowed him a complete understanding of love for his wife that he had previously thought he had perspective on. His new perspective was something in his words "the healthy could never understand." This perspective was the gift of dying - a bitter sweet notion that he would always be paradoxically grateful for. "Dying creates momentum for change" he said as he looked out the window, "the stakes are ever higher than right now. My wife looked at me with such tenderness this morning, after a particularly bad night's sleep that I thought my heart would break. How do you quantify that? I can't. You can't. This level of intimacy that Gail and I have achieved through my diagnosis is beyond my understanding or intellect. I just love her so much."
It suddenly dawned on me that this twig of a man that I had known for all of seven days was turning the axis of death on it's head. He was challenging the premise that the best thing we could all hope for was to simply drop dead. I remember growing up and hearing it time after time that the best one could hope for was to simply die in the moment. Avoid the confrontation of mortality altogether. One minute walking down the road or sleeping soundly and the next simply absent. Off to whatever journey our beliefs, spirituality or religions took us. His logic was sound, his passion was sincere however I remained unconvinced. I had two concerns. One was that death was not simply about him - he would leave a wife and daughters alone - surely death cannot be deﬁned as a beautiful, positive experience if it brings such sadness to the living. The second concern was more of a moot point - he wasn't dead yet. I asked him the question. "Philip you aren't dead yet - surely you cannot hope to be a sage or an expert on something that you will be the ﬁrst to admit you haven't done." He stared thoughtfully down at the coffee table and nodded his head. "He then looked back up at me and with that sparkle in his eye said "well I am a damn sight closer than you." He punctuated the sentence with a healthy chuckle before going on to further redeﬁne his process like any profound intellect or academic would. "I am not redeﬁning death, I am offering another way to perceive dying. I have been offered an opportunity to live every moment until there are no more moments for me to live and for that I will be eternally grateful." There was no chuckle this time. The room was ﬁlled with an ironic melancholy that only abject sincerity can muster.
THE PORTRAIT -
Highgate Cemetery, London, 27 October 2011 7.15 AM
"We were going to come to you at ten but the cemetery would prefer early. If we come to you at 7.45 would that be convenient?"
"7.45 perfect. Best Philip"
The team had ﬂown in from South Africa twenty four hours earlier. I explained to Philip that one of our team members had lost his father to cancer in the last three months and I wasn't sure how the guys would react. Philip's compassion was astounding. He asked if he could meet the team at this house before the shoot as he didn't want them to feel uncomfortable meeting him for the ﬁrst time at the cemetery. Within ﬁve minutes he had each team member feeling completely at ease as he explained how important this portrait was to him. He gave them a focus and a purpose whilst completely diffusing the pressure around them. I think we were all grateful for Philip simply being the human being that he was at that point. He helped us when he didn't really have to. This was his death but he would have been mortiﬁed if it made us feel uncomfortable.
It was clear to me that Philip loved people. He loved attention. He loved stimulation. I think that for Philip death meant far more than an absence of life it meant that his mind would cease to wonder inquisitively with the people around him. As I watched him in the cemetery chatting to the cameramen and the girls on set he was in his element. There was the showman as he took a call from his wife on set, there was the strong minded strategist who pushed back against the umbrella as a prop until I gave in - "I don't want to be immortalised as Gene Kelly, Adrian" "No Philip, I doubt he knew what New Labour was anyway." We both smiled and I continued photographing a man who was busy living with enthusiasm enough for all of us.
The portrait was beautiful. I shot the portrait but it was very much Philip's photograph. He set the tone, he owned the set, it was his monologue that kept the crew captivated. I think he had a very good idea of what he wanted the shot to 'feel' like and had come to trust me enough that I would facilitate. It's a nice feeling as a photographer because there is nothing self absorbed about the photo. This was a memorable photograph for me. Something that I was proud to be a part of. For twenty ﬁve minutes a gravely ill man stood proudly in front of a camera, deﬁant and living, and we lived and captured that with him.
The Interview -
27 October 2011 2.12 PM
"Hi Philip we are on our way to you but won't arrive until 3pm"
"Come to the house when you can. Feel great. Lovely lovely day.x"
There were two interviews of Philip in front of camera. The two interviews were completely different in delivery and nature. They clearly outlined the process that Philip was experiencing as he lived every moment. The ﬁrst interview at his house in London was the same day as the portrait and the tone was theatrical and and agenda driven. Philip was very purposeful about the 'deathzone' and his sense of purpose since his terminal diagnosis. His tone had changed slightly as is completely normal when the cameras are rolling. I was very upfront with him after the interview and said that I didn't have the deﬁnitive solution to my problem however my sense was that his tone was too academic for his message to ﬁnd common cause. As is Philip's way he took my feedback very seriously and in his own words stayed up all night reading to feed his mind with a clear way through. "We must work out how to say what I am feeling Adrian, everybody should be given the opportunity to experience this. It's not fair to say that dying is all bad." I agreed - "Do you think it's fair to say that it's all good though Philip?" He looked at me thoughtfully and then quietly said "No it's not. I don't want to die."
29 October 2011 1.57PM
"How you feeling mate - ready for tomorrow?"
"A little tired. Quite a big few days but loved it. Really looking forward to it. x"
The ﬁnal interview on the Saturday in the Cotswolds was quite simply beautiful. I was mesmerised as I watched a very brave man talk about his life drawing to a close. There was no pretense, there was no bravado,there was no agenda, there was only sincerity that made every person lucky enough to be in that room hold their breath and appreciate their own moments. His daughters stayed for the interview and perched together next to the window holding hands. His wife Gail chose not to be there and after greeting us quietly left the room.
"I am scared" admitted Philip. "For me the death zone was a process through which step by step I became able to cope with the possibility of death. It’s always been my view and increasingly my view that since my first diagnosis of cancer, four or so years ago, I became to realize that at every point, whatever would come, I would be able to cope with it, not completely but to an extent." The humility of the admission that he was not completely coping made this very interview heartbreakingly beautiful. He was brave enough to not cope in front of us. Several times during the interview I would find my eyes swimming but did my best to not go in that direction. It wasn't what Philip wanted. Our sympathy was the furthest thing from his mind.
"Are you appreciative of dying and sharing the experience of death with your wife and two daughters?" I posed the question. The notion nagged that Philip's quest for a very public passing would lead to a very painful bereavement. The stick thin man in front of me looked at me with such intensity and answered quickly - "Well, I question ‘appreciative,' it is not quite strong enough. It is everything for me. I have my wife and my children there for me at this moment, because I am defining myself now through death. I rely upon them enormously, almost completely, in this time I try and lead them. I try to inspire them. I try and show strength, but at the end of the day this is me who is dying and me who has to show them a way forward in this time." As if on cue he looked passed my shoulder at the audience behind me. I turned to find the three women in his life sitting next to each other. Gail had quietly entered the room and joined her daughters. Their faces were aglow with love, pride and perhaps even forgiveness for a man they loved.
My cynicism had proved to be simply that. Here was a man who was shifting the paradigm of dying with every breath. The energy required was unfathomable. Surely this is the time when we give in and self pity and sadness are our uneasy bed fellows as we wait it out? It seemed Philip was far from happy with that menage a trois. Not a man to sit back he decided to go deeper down the rabbit hole than anybody had ever dared.
02 November 2011 8.42PM
"I hope your day was not a terrible one. Adrian"
"Not too bad. They calmed things down but no idea how long for. But I am alive, the family is together and my daughter just said it was one of the most perfect days of her life. Hope all well with you, I thought your team was wonderful. Much love, Philip."
"By way both the kids thought you lot were fantastic and so did Gail. Amazing to think that a week ago I was standing on my grave and a week later I am sitting on a hospital bed with my bed totally enclosed by a giant plastic bag."
Over the next week Philip's health deteriorated rapidly. I did not see him again. We communicated daily by text. He contracted pneumonia and his great fear of leaving his house for the last time was realised.
05 November 2011 11.41 AM
"Thinking of you Philip. x"
"Many thanks Xcccccc"
As a team we would wait for the inevitable message to come through. Unable to believe that the vibrant man who had held our centre of attention for the last ten days was going to die. All of a sudden we appreciated even more our moments with that man. In his infinite wisdom - the stakes were much higher. Despite the interview, the portrait, the conversations, the text messages I did not have the opportunity to thank him and say goodbye. I felt like I had not been strong enough to take his own advice. I had sat with him for hours, nodded in agreement as he told me that the first step to dying beautifully was acceptance and until it happened just as he said it would I realised that I had not accepted it.
06 November 2011 11.43 PM
"He died very beautifully at 9.30 tonight. Gail is in rapture and says that she felt total bliss from him at the moment of death and that it was a message for us all to not be sad."
As I walked onto the plane to return to Africa I realised that I would not be able to sleep until I said goodbye to Philip. I was lucky enough to know Philip Gould for 14 days and I will forever appreciate that.Suggest a correction