Ryan Donnell Documents Bionic Implant Therapy for MIT Technology Review

May 6, 2014

By Barbara Goldman

© Ryan Donnell

 Amputee Igor Spetic in therapy for new nerve interface technology.

Ryan Donnell   is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a news photographer in Washington, D.C. and Dallas before starting a freelance career in magazine and commercial photography. These days, the Des Moines, Iowa-based photographer gets most of his assignments for editorial, institutional, advertising and corporate clients.

Recently Donnell photographed a fascinating assignment for MIT Technology Review for an article covering the latest technology for bionic prosthetics. Donnell got to photograph new groundbreaking technology trials for amputee Igor Spetic.  Spetic, aged 48, lost his hand in a workplace accident while working with a drop-hammer forge on an aluminum jet part. He is only one of two people right now to regain realistic finger sensations, thanks to a nerve interface  through electrodes wired to the residual nerves in his arm.

Donnell worked with Creative Director Eric Mongeon of MIT Technology Review. The two have worked together on earlier portrait projects when Mongeon owned his own design studio in Massachusetts. The current project involved creating both stills and video interviews that were published on MIT’s website.  Working with Cleveland-based photographer Kevin Kopanski as an assistant and camera operator, Donnell documented Spetic’s therapy session and the research being done by the people at Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University.

Prosthetics are tools for amputees and not limbs. Donnell had to show Spetic using his hand and describing the sensations with the new interface. Because there is no nerve sensation, people with prosthetics cannot tell when they have dropped something or crushed something.  One of Donell’s biggest challenges was telling the story of the difficulty that Spetic faced in each of his therapy sessions. He had to relay how Spetic tried to teach his brain to communicate with the electrodes located on his prosthetic hand and wired to his nervous system.

“We photographed a few different tests that the researchers use to calibrate and test the sensors. One of these included a test to measure his ability to control, while blindfolded, the force used to squeeze a cherry with two prosthetic fingers. He was asked to use the artificial hand to hold the cherry while pulling the stem out with his good hand — too hard and the cherry bursts, too soft and the stem doesn’t come out,” says Donnell. Spectic had gotten very good over the past months, so there were not many broken cherries. “Fortunately, for the sake of the visual story, I was able to capture the very few broken cherries,” adds Donnell.

© Ryan Donnell/ Tests for sensation with cherries and foam blocks.

Donnell shot with a 5D Mark IIIs for stills and Kopanski shot a 5D Mark III for the video. They used an LED panel light for video, Profoto strobes for the portraits and handheld Canon strobes for a lot of the candid work.

Results are promising for these bionic prosthetics, but the research and surgical implants are very time-consuming and further biomedical engineering for the refining of stimulation methods, doing more clinical trials and working to get this technology into the home can still be as much as 10 years away.

Even though the sensation ends for Spectic when he is finished with the therapy, he feels very fortunate to be part of these trials. Donnell also was very proud to be part of this project and to be able to bring awareness to this cutting-edge nerve interface. Amputees with prosthetics now have hope for a future  that can give them back sensations for something as simple as just holding hands.

Donnell’s images were used in the print magazine and on the magazine’s website, along with the video.  You can see the full article here  and see the video here.    See more work at Ryan Donnell’s site,