While growing up, I explored the world through the photo essays of Life magazine. Life photographers, who often times spent months photographing one subject, showed me the power that a series of images might possess. I knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps and become a documentary photographer. My objective was to use my images in a way to help the world. But in my case, as often happens, “life” decided to step in and alter my plans.
Life magazine was published regularly from 1883 to 1972. As a wide-ranging weekly general interest magazine, it was recognized with respect to its essays. The in-depth stories were assembled and sequenced so each story was told through the interplay of words and photographs. Topics ranged from popular culture to world events and a variety in between. It was an extravaganza of images – not just words.
The magazine ceased publication as I was entering photography school, triggering my search for an alternative way to use my photographic skills to help people. I discovered and researched the field of medical photography and upon graduation, my first paid position was as a medical photographer.
Working at a university based teaching hospital, my photographs were used in research and in the education of physicians during their training. I felt that these areas allowed me to indirectly help patients as my photographic skills assisted doctors in providing positive health outcomes.
Three years later I was introduced to the field of ophthalmic photography. Ophthalmology is the medical specialty that diagnoses and treats disorders of the eye.
In ophthalmology, I was responsible for many of the same photographic procedures I provided as a medical photographer. In addition, I learned how to use specialized cameras and to perform specialized photographic procedures to make diagnostic images of the eye. These images directly influenced medicine’s efforts to save the sight of patients. What better way for me to help people as a photographer than to save and improve vision?
As I continued to develop the medical/scientific side of my photographic life, I also began my journey of pursuing personal documentary projects: telling the stories of people, places and things that held meaning for me. Over the course of thirty years, these two halves of my photographic life had remained separate but in parallel until 2006. That year I was offered the opportunity to accompany ORBIS International on one of their sight saving missions to Nigeria.
The ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital is a state-of-the-art teaching facility complete with operating room, classroom and recovery room – all contained within the confines of an airplane. With the support of volunteer faculty, ORBIS provides training around the world to all types of healthcare workers – from doctors and nurses in regional hospitals to district leaders and teachers in remote areas.
The restoration of sight is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to reverse the cycle of poverty for individuals and their families, according to statistics from the World Bank and World Health Organization. My goal was to use this opportunity to finally bring both halves of my photography together in sharing the ORBIS story.
At the time of my inaugural trip, the current state of civil unrest in the country included kidnappings and a contentious presidential election. My group, aware of the potential violence, was met at the airport in Ilorin, Nigeria by an armed security team. This team would be at our side every minute of our ten-day stay.
Armed guards were stationed outside exam and operating rooms. Waiting rooms were packed full of patients waiting to be seen both at the local hospital and at the airport on the Flying Eye Hospital. While the plane was air-conditioned, the temperature inside the hospital was close to 115°F. The hospital windows were open and awaiting any small movement of dusty hot air coming in from the outside.
Eye exams were conducted in any available space, sometimes with two or three patients being seen in the same room. Packed into each room were a variety of local physicians, residents and volunteer faculty. Improvised exam equipment and at times hand tools such as pliers were pressed into service in an effort to find a solution to the lack of modern equipment.
The scene was totally different than any other I had experienced in ophthalmology. My experience in ophthalmology gave me insights into the procedures being performed, but nothing in my past prepared me for trying to photograph what transpired during the next week in that heat and humidity.
My position as one of the volunteer faculty gave me access not normally afforded a photographer. My challenge was how to express visually what I was experiencing.
With patients being examined in every room available, the first response by most photographers would be to immediately start photographing. Instead, from lessons learned over my career, I put my camera down and just observed, allowing the experience to reveal the story that I wanted to tell.
I had seen the work of other photographers who had photographed previous missions. From that work, I knew the photographs that I didn’t want to make. First, all the previous projects were photographed in color. In many ways, the images were reminiscent of a travel ad, highlighting the colorful clothes of the patients. These images almost never went beyond the obvious, more advertisement for ORBIS or to be included in the organization’s annual report rather than telling the story of the mission.
Black and white photography tends to remove the emotional response to pleasant and appealing colors, forcing the viewer to spend time looking into the image and learning something from it. It has been and continues to be my primary mode of photographing.
Since I had worked in ophthalmology in the United States for over thirty years, I could observe the process and see what made this different from a typical exam at home. During my first day on the project, I don’t recall making any photographs, a difficult task for any photographer with a camera in hand. Be patient while the story revealed itself! I needed time to understand the process before I could say anything meaningful through my images.
What I hoped to convey was an awareness of the vast differences between what we experience compared to what much of the world experiences for even the most basic eye care, and how even a simple sight-saving procedure can change lives.
For example, a grandmother blinded by cataracts requires her granddaughter to leave grade school to take care of her. With simple cataract surgery at a cost of $25, the grandmother regains some independence and her granddaughter can now return to school. Receiving an education will immeasurably improve the course of her grand daughter’s life.
Maybe, after seeing these images, someone might decide to donate their time or money to help. I was reminded again of this contrast last weekend when I ordered a new pair of glasses. I spent a good bit of time deciding which “designer” frames looked best on me, while at the same time thinking about the optician in Nigeria who used pliers to shape lenses to be fitted into donated frames – glasses for someone who will be so thankful to see again.
Most of us are familiar with the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. What’s never added is “only if the photographer has a thousand words to say”. In Nigeria, I fulfilled my desire to tell a story that actually said something.