This article compares drawings by Diana ‘Dickie’ Orpen (1914-2008) with photographs by Percy Hennell (1911-1987); both of their oeuvres depict plastic reconstructive surgeries from World War II in Britain. Through visual analysis, personal experience and interviews with archivists who have worked with the collections, this article aims to determine the affective effects of these drawings and photographs. I argue that Hennell’s images are the more affective and subjective objects, even though their original purpose was objective and scientific. This article asks why Hennell’s photographs of plastic surgery produce such a vehement emotive response.Investigating Hennell’s use of colour, his compositional choices and the unexpected visual particulars of the operating theatre that he captures-all of which ‘collect affect’ within the photo-archival object-this analysis uses a phenomenological framework to determine the limitations and strengths of two very different styles and mediums of World War II surgical imagery.Beyond establishing which group of images is more affecting, this article also shows why it is empathy that is the most fitting emotional description of the typical responses to Hennell’s photographs. This type of visual analysis of empathic images can be applied to objects-based medical humanities pedagogy that encourages empathy-historical empathy as well as empathy in the present day-for surgical practitioners and trainees.© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2021. No commercial re-use. See rights and permissions. Published by BMJ.