The Power of Photography


What can these two dimensional objects do for us? What is it they possess that is so powerful?

I woke early (again) this morning, thinking and reflecting after another roller-coaster emotional day. I’ve opened my laptop to try to articulate some thoughts and a suggested tweet popped into my Inbox. Jörg Colberg at his insightful thought-provoking best poking and prodding at our often lazy consideration of photography:

“So we need to go back and give that medium a good, hard look again. What does it actually do?  Not what we think it does, not what we want it to do. Instead: What does it do? And how does it do that? We need to think about that process of defamiliarization.”

Jörg’s words resonate this morning.

The last 48 hours of my life have featured photography very significantly. Nothing earth-shattering nor revelatory, but a good and timely reminder for me of why I photograph, of why being a photographer is important, why photographs themselves, as objects, are important. I knew this already, realized over thirty years ago the power an image can wield, the impact it can have on both the image ‘taker’ and the ‘consumer’ as I related here, and also the continuing thread of another experience here.

I took my wee boy William into Intensive Care to see his mum the night before last. The medical staff had advised me against it previously, on Tuesday, when I had raised the possibility  “Small children can be distressed by the sight of their parent all intubated, and the machines can be scary and overwhelming.”

But on Thursday, deterioration in Melanie’s condition made them reappraise their decision, and nursing staff made the suggestion that if we wanted to bring him in it might be a good idea to do so sooner rather than later. There is a limit to how long a perceptive and intelligent five year old can be put off with excuses as to why he can’t see his mum “if she’s only sleeping daddy”.

We went in, he spent a few minutes with mum, his faithful companion snow-leopard keeping guard, and happily waltzed back out via the infection control sink for another scrub down (we do it on the way in, and out). He was thorough, sleeves up, effort and concentration on his face. Behind him a whole array of trauma nurses’ faces betrayed their thoughts and emotions on seeing this little lad happily coping. They are all mothers, and fathers. They know.

The next day one of the senior nurses approached me and remarked on William’s visit, and asked if he was ok. But added that they all had thought he looked very composed and content during and after his brief visit. I said: “…well…… yes, he was fine…….mainly I think because I ignored your instruction not to photograph, and I took a couple.”  (I was referring  to her edict from a few days previously that I was not legally allowed to photograph my partner because of The Incapacity Act, as she’d not given her written permission for this to nursing staff. )

“I’ll pretend you didn’t tell me that” she replied, but not curtly, warmly, smiling.

I smiled: “I was careful not to show any identifying details, no names, nor Melanie’s face. No other patients, no staff. Here, I have the camera in my bag,  let me show you: this is the left side of her bed and the pipes and wires, and then the machines they are connected to. Then the right side, more tubes and pipes and machines. Only Melanie’s elbow showing on either side. Then a picture of the view from her window, and finally the table at the bottom of the bed with the picture of William on it that one of our friends thoughtfully left. Not really a problem is it?

Well – before I brought William in I sat with him at home and explained that mummy is very tired, that she needs help to breathe, and I used all the pictures to help give him a sense of the place, the space and mummy’s location within it, but of course I’m not showing Melanie, I’ll leave him to ‘find’ her here himself, lying peacefully at the centre of it all: my hope was he will be able to easily locate her in this confusing space. He was curious and thoughtful, questioning, so I explained that this is the breath-helping box, it sounds like Thomas The Tank Engine – goes pssshhky-tooo-pssshhky-tooo, and she needs some sleepy medicine and it comes through this tube, and she needs to have some food too so it comes in this tube. And we discussed all the lights and beeps, just like on his toys.”

The nurse looked somewhat taken aback.

“So when William came in I’d told him it was like a simple puzzle to see if he could ‘find’ his mum from the photos I’d shown him, and as he ‘searched’ for her he didn’t ‘see’ those bits of equipment as being anything other than helpful, useful, normal, and possible clues as to her location. In fact he ignored them completely. And he ‘found’ his mum, that she was the centre of it all, and that the place I’d described, with the view out of the window to the sky and clouds, and the picture of him at the bottom of the bed, was real, that we’d not misled him, and as a result he came home content, and easily fell asleep, informed, satisfied and most of all happy that mummy was ok and safe.”

“That is such a good idea. Oh my. Oh. Hmm.” the nurse replied. Realization dawning, writ large on her face at what photographs, simple non-intrusive photographs can achieve.

I added: “Well I’ve noticed you have all sorts of explanatory material about ICU for visitors but I’ve not seen any of it that is aimed at children specifically. They need it too, perhaps more than adults in some cases. Anyway it helped William immensely, and that has greatly helped me too. And that will help Melanie.”

I left to go to speak with Melanie’s boss. He is greatly upset, as are all her work colleagues. “All of Melanie’s colleagues are devastated” he said “they want to know what they can do, maybe send  flowers, get-well  cards, but they don’t want to be intrusive. But they want to show solidarity and explain how much she means to them.”

I thought for a moment…….“Well, flowers are not permitted in Intensive Care, and cards will probably not be either at present. But……look……could you ask them to do something else please? Ask them to take a photograph of themselves, happy smiling real-world stuff,  just the normal postcard size, and put a little note to Melanie on the back in permanent marker, saying who they are, and a wee personal message, maybe in easy-to-read writing, and I’ll put all of them in an album that we can wipe down for infection control purposes and Melanie can have it….for when…well…when she recovers.

A sympathy or get well card is…nice….I appreciate the sentiment…but..they mark a place we want to leave, move forwards from, but an album of faces, and little personal notes is where we want to go to, and that will be so so much more valuable for her. If there is any memory problem it will help Melanie remember, it will prompt her reading and comprehension, and it will give the nurses, and us, and particularly Melanie something to focus on that’s aspirational.

The nurses can also refer to it to see who the visitors are, ‘oh this is Melanie’s cousin’, ‘this is her boss’, ‘this is her school friend’ and so on. It will also provide a way that Melanie’s memory for faces and associated recollection of names can be confirmed. That helps them in their role assessing her abilities and determining if there is any progress or deterioration in her memory.

But most of all it will give her colleagues the opportunity to actually do something positive, to not feel helpless, to actually know that they are playing a hugely important and active role in…in her recovery…. “

And so they will do this for us. Simple images, collected, individually important, but together forming a powerful ‘visual toolkit’ that will I hope help the process of repair and recovery. Only time will tell, but for now it’s a small step towards that.

I’ll leave you with a few more of Jörg’s words to contemplate, about the promise of the still image, the latent power of the photograph, and its role in shaping and informing our lives:

“Instead of whining about the limitations of the medium, we need to start appreciating those very limitations. It is right here that the promises lie. Right here. And the promises are plentiful, much more plentiful than the limitations.

We take photographs out of this world we live in, and the moment we have done that they become something else entirely.”

Never underestimate the power of photography. The promise of the still image extends far beyond the physical boundary of its edges.




Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. Iesha says:

    Such a powerful post. Firstly, I hope you wife gets better soon. 2ndly, I can really relate to this. When our daughter was born in the summer she was in intensive care for a week. I took pictures incessantly. It gave me something to do and helped me cope. Also my partner gave birth via emergency Caesarian and didn’t see her for several hours so the pics were the first contact with her newborn child. That was a few months ago now and I’ve only just been able to look at then again without crying.

    Photography can be powerful. We have to realise the limitations but also make use of what it can do.

    • Thanks Iesha, we spend too much time worrying over what photography means and too little time actually exploring what it can do. Its also easy to forget that there are other ‘casualties’ in this process who need to have support, or ways to feel empowered. Thanks for your continued support and comments.

  2. Your article could be titled The Power of Love too. Surely all will be fine soon. Photography serve to all of us to understand ourselves and the world outside. Is like the first action of touch something. Your words touching me from this other side of the world. Hug.

  3. Paul - MyLittleEye says:

    A mutual friend shared her concern and I was deeply touched when I read what your family is going through.
    My own family had a similar experience when my mother suffered a brain haemorrhage. I had just turned seven.
    She went on to make a ‘good recovery’ eventually but it would always remain a life changing event for everyone. It can take a while to realise and accept that! She always said afterwards how important it was that I had been there. Even as she was drifting in and out of consciousness she knew I was there, it meant so much to her and strengthened her will to get better. As a seven year old I seemed to just accept it all as stuff that happens. Only when older did I recognise the herculean effort my father had made to maintain a semblance of normality throughout her gradual recovery.
    My thoughts are with you and yours at this difficult time.

    • Paul – I really appreciate your comments. Its hearing little vignettes of other’s experiences that give me some sense of perspective in all this. People feel helpless “because I can’t do anything for you” but often all I need at a moment is a few well chosen words that make me stop and think. Thanks for yours.

  4. Ray Wood says:

    Hi John, In a recent conversation with a friend I explained my regret that I hadn’t taken a photo of my Dad when he was in intensive care. At the time I was relatively young, not yet a photographer & totally unable to take it all in. Photographs help us stop forgetting for sure and are a foil to our unreliable memory imposing a ‘distorted version’ of the past. Your insightful writing and photos always provides me with an immense amount of food for thought. Definitely one of the best things I’ve discovered through Twitter. How you manage to write so eloquently at this difficult time I don’t know but I’m sure your words will resonate & be a comfort for many people who have been, will be or are in a similar position. I may be a stranger but sincerely hope everything turns out ok.

    • Ray thanks for letting me know this. Writing ‘publicy’ was not something I’ve done lightly. It’s quite revealing and often hard to gauge what effect it will have, both on me and the audience, and sometimes I’m surprised, other times puzzled by responses. But what I have found is that its helped me to focus on things in a way that gives me a sense of perspective.

      A casual conversation with someone – and I’ve had many recently, such as with parents at school when I drop my wee lad off – are useful, supportive, touching, and valued but are often non-specific. People are (naturally) mindful that its emotionally fraught just now and they may fear that they’ll trigger a tearful response. Personally – when its happened, and I have been tearful, its also been useful because its about the reality of where we are – this HAS happened and it needs dealing with. And its good to have emotion teased out of me like that because otherwise…well I don’t know what the ‘otherwise’ leads to. And I don’t care to find out.

      And the value of a blog post is that the responses to it are invariably nuanced, considered, carefully written to ‘reach’ me, and often have little gems of support embedded that may not have been offered in a conversation on a school playground in a freezing wind.

      Thank you for the comments on my writing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I read everyone’s responses with the same sense of curiosity, inquiry and thought, as I offer my own words to you.

  5. Lynne Gee says:

    Reading your 2013 account of your wife’s ICU time (it now being Nov 2017) and your method of preparing little William for what he would see there, I’m full of admiration. Also, I had to go looking for a follow-up blog to tell me she recovered – Hurrah! ? I hope hospitals take a more practical attitude now than ‘thou shalt not’, at least some of them. Having said that, I realise that large institutions are like juggernauts in that they can’t be diverted easily from rules and regs set up before ‘the modern age’.

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