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Human photos best tell healthcare story.

Of all institutions, those specializing in healthcare offer richly human subject matter tailor-made for good photographs. Yet most hospitals, drug companies, manufacturers of medical equipment, physical fitness clubs and even medical schools often fail to make the most of their wonderful subjects. All too many of the photos published by such organizations are literal, staged, artificial in appearance, stilted and boring.

The same kinds of factors that destroy human values in other kinds institutional photography also are at work in healthcare: fear of someone looking "too real," a desire for everyone to look "good," a need for management to control photo-subjects so completely that all spontaneity, vitality and reality is destroyed before the shutter is even pressed. When you've seen one health photo, you've virtually seen them all: the smiling nurse happily serving the grinning patient, the "safe" distant shot of the operating room filled with gleaming sterile equipment costing millions of dollars. These are literal, empty images that say little, if anything, to readers about the important mission of these institutions.

I have long urged healthcare organizations to tell the visual story of their institutions in human, instead of mechanical, terms. A few have taken this advice, such as those regularly served by Detroit, Mich. freelance photojournalist Tom Treuter. His pictures can tell how people who work for and are served by healthcare institutions actually feel about the task at hand. Treuter shoots not just to show the subject, but rather to say something about it.

In this picture of a doctor showing an X-ray to a young patient who has broken her wrist, Treuter does not set anything up. This doctor, who works at a Cigna Corp. healthcare facility in New Mexico, really is showing this child her X-ray. His energy comes through via body language, as does hers. The lollipop, and the hand holding the damaged wrist, complete the story.

I have no problem with posed pictures as long as they are honest portraits that tell a story, not faked "let's pretend we are working" pictures. Treuter shoots a communicative environmental portrait of a doctor at the University of Michigan Medical Center that is worth considerable study. The incredible clutter, the massive work load, the wall of somewhat whimsical accomplishments and finally the relaxed but slightly wary posture of the doc himself, tells us not just what he does, but who he is.

Treuter's success as a healthcare photojournalist is based on his knowledge of the field; a natural, relaxed way of working with subjects; and his invisibility as a photographer. He works unobtrusively with natural light, shooting many photos to get the few that tell the story. I wish there were more hospital photographers out there like him, and more healthcare institutions willing to use photojournalism as a medium of visual communication.

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, director of The Douglis Visual Workshops and widely known photographic consultant and critic, now offers his introductory Communicating with Pictures workshops twice each year in Sedona, Ariz. He also continues to present special seminars on photographic communication on a sponsored, in-house basis to companies, associations and IABC chapters. For information call (602) 284-0604. Douglis also welcomes tearsheets for possible use in this column. Send to The Douglis Visual Workshops, 76 Ridge Rock Road, Sedona, AZ 86351.
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Title Annotation:Photocritique
Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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