I spoke with my friends Larry and Sue Savett the other night. Larry and Sue live in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Sue was a Social Worker and Larry an Internal Medicine MD. We had gotten to know each other through a mutual friend and over the course of twenty or more years developed a solid friendship and abiding respect for each other.
In 2002, Larry published a book titled The Human Side of Medicine: Learning What it’s like to be a Patient and What it’s like to be a Physician. The book looks at the complexity of the doctor/patient relationship and offers tools to improve that interaction. Some time before the book was published he called to ask if he could use this photograph in his book. It was an image I had made in the mid-1980s for a story on rural health care initiatives for Southern Exposure Magazine. Writer Millie Buchanan and I did a story on the Hot Springs Health Program, a cutting-edge health delivery system in Madison County that became a model for rural health systems across the state.
I spent a number of days with Home Health Nurse Susan Moore as she made her rounds across the county tending to members of our community. Susan’s manner with her patients was more like a neighbor or family member – listening, open, responsive, encouraging the patient to talk about themselves. She knew, if she could build trust between herself and her patient, and the patient's family, it would benefit the patient’s health. Photographers also know this - that building trust with your subject often produces a better, more open, image.
When teaching, Larry uses this photograph as an example of The Human Side of Medicine. He shows it to his students and asks them to write an essay about what they see in the image. He has shared some of the essays with me and I’m struck by the student’s ability to understand the facts in the photograph while adding their own personal elements to the story they write.
Photography is dependent on facts, an external reality. There has to be something to photograph and photographers generally understand their role is to picture the world around them. As an image-maker I want the viewer to recognize the factual elements in a photograph - the what, why, and where in a picture. But what really excites me is when that evidence sparks the viewer’s memories: That reminds me of a time when we butchered hogs. Or, My mother used to wear her hair like that. Or, That was a hard time for my family. It’s the ability of the photograph to transcend its initial, intended meaning and create new realities that gives the medium its power and uniqueness.