The Power of PhotographyWritten by John Macpherson
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…..er… yes, he was fine…..um….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…well…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…well…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.