My phone rang yesterday morning. It was the hospital.
“Dont worry! It’s all fine” the concerned nurse reassured me. “Melanie is awake and we’ve used a word board and although its very difficult for her she’s pointed to specific words. She’s ‘asked’ for you and William to visit!”
Melanie’s mum and dad are hugging each other.
Her sister comes in with William and me. The wee lad was excited.
Melanie is understandably confused but comprehends what is said. The nurse takes me aside and warns me that she is very emotional, and it’s a concern for them, as it is very draining. Everything is happening in slow motion, Melanie acts as if her skin has changed into lead and each movement is an effort. She sees William and her face lights up. He’s a star, climbs on the bed and makes a fuss and then decides that mummy would like to see a game on the iPad so shows her that, but then gets a wee bit sidetracked. The reality of her situation is gradually dawning on Melanie and she is desperately emotional, still trying to understand whats transpired and the effect its had on her. The tracheostomy makes it impossible to speak but she moves her lips to try anyway. Its all too taxing so I leave with William so that he can go to play with his pals, and Melanie’s sister stays.
In the world of a 5 year old, a lift is a magical thing. It’s the second best thing about visiting mummy. “Can I press the buttons daddy..please! PLEASE! Not down the stairs again! In the lift pleeease!”
Outside having inspected the smokers’ corner and remarked on the mess they’ve left with cigarette butts everywhere William dances off down the pavement, content in the way that only a small child can be. His world has shifted slightly but the pieces are all still apparently intact. And the hospital has a lift, and sells ice lollies. And he gets to see his mum.
I returned to the hospital in the evening to say goodnight to Melanie. The nurses are professional, efficient, considerate, concerned for family as well as patients. But they are also human, have emotions and are affected by what they see, and have to deal with. As I scrub the nurse talks to me about the latest development.
“She’s fine, calm, bit of indigestion but nothing serious” her tone professional, direct, but warm.
“It’s common around her period” I offer, smiling. Adding “It’s one of the reasons I’m really really really glad I’m not a woman!” and laughed.
The nurse’s face cracked into a broad smile “Shaving, shaving! You have no idea how glad I am not to be a bloke and have to shave!”
I looked earnestly at her, then stared down at her legs, clad in the regulation blue trousers, then back at her somewhat puzzled face “I’m definitely NOT wanting to see your legs then, you must have some spectacular fur going on under those trousers! It must be as luxuriant as the arm of my fleece jacket” and I rubbed my hand up my sleeve in a cat-stroking gesture.
Her face broke into the broadest of grins, and she spluttered out a laugh she’d not expected to have to use, almost choking, and alarming the other nurses in this otherwise peaceful ward.
I went to Melanie’s bed, She was tearful, then smiling. But tired. I made a fuss, she smiled again. Then her eyes closed. The nurse appeared, with a colleague. She spoke loudly to me so Melanie could hear:
“I’ve got to show you, something, have to reveal it all to you.” Melanie’s eyes opened and the nurse lifted her leg up level with Melanie’s bed so that she could see and with a flourish pulled up her trouser leg to reveal a mass of hair, huge wodges of it tumbling out over her sock! “What do you think of THAT then!”
She had found an old wig, probably used for covering shaved heads, and got her colleague to do some arcane medical procedure to stick it onto her leg!
Melanie laughed in silence, the puff of her ventilator the only sound. Her face lit up into a giant grin, one that happened in such slow motion we got to enjoy it for a long time. Then she slowly closed her eyes and drifted into a slumber.
A trauma ward is traumatic but not just for the patients, a wee bit of lightness and laughter goes a long way to lift everyone, and healing is helped by all sorts of things. Whatever transpires in the difficult weeks ahead of us it helps me to know that humour will play a huge part in it. Because I like to laugh, and so does Melanie.
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 nursing staff made the suggestion that if we wanted to bring him in it might be a good idea. 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 was he ok. But that they had all thought he looked very composed and content. 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’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 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, 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 he didn’t ‘see’ those bits of equipment as being anything other than helpful, useful, normal. In fact he ignored them completely. All he could see was 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. That helps them in their role. 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.
…..to all of you who have tweeted, emailed and contacted me in various ways with your messages of support after reading yesterdays post. Please know they are very gratefully received.
I’m not going to revel in any self-indulgent twaddle gilded with emotion, that’s not me. I have a sense of humour and if I have anything to say I’ll try and make it worth my while writing and your time reading.
I read a cynic say some time ago on a forum “Mehh all this online sympathy sucks, you don’t know these people, they’re all strangers, what’s that all about. I just don’t get it.”
I was/am part of a forum that some years ago hatched a daft plan. We are all Buell motorcycle owners and considered these radical bikes to be vastly underrated. So as you do, we decided to pool our resources, expertise, and to use the internet to collaborate, liaise and take an old Buell bike to Bonneville Salt Flats for Speed Week. And there, to race it against the works teams from Harley-Davidson, Moto-Guzzi, BMW etc – in the air-cooled twins, and v-twins categories. So Team Elves was born. Few of the participants and sponsors had ever met each other, we were all strangers to each other. My contribution was rewarded by having my name on the helmet of the bike’s pilot.
“I’ve got a portable catering truck, I’ll bring it and make great food!” said one guy.
“I’m a freelance photographer I’ll do all the stills work we need doing” said another.
“I’ve got video kit and a satellite uplink system and we can do daily reports live as we go!” said someone else.
“I’m a masseuse with all the portable kit – I’ll make sure the rider is relaxed and tuned up too!”
And more and more and more. To cut a long story short Bonneville had seen nothing like it. The hugely funded works teams looked on in amusement. Which turned to envy. Then disbelief. And finally to dismay.
We broke four world land speed records in various categories, some by a significant margin. And we got onto the front cover of several major US papers and magazines.
That’s what strangers can do.
But closer to home when I was in Social Work Disability Services, a letter was delivered to me as the senior staff member in the facility I was managing. It was from a man who had been sitting in the town park and had a seizure, slumping forwards and blocking his airway. Nobody stopped. Well nobody except my ‘client’ John……………..
Who is John? John has an ‘intellectual impairment’ and was at that time regarded as being a complete and utter pest by all the shopkeepers in town. He was banned from several of the stores because of his unpredictable behaviour. I ‘rescued’ him one day, in a large supermarket that had just installed an automatic-gate barrier system. John had bowled in and with his severe short-sightedness and tunnel-vision he could not figure out why his regular routine of ‘enter store, take five paces, turn right, walk in a straight line, get to chiller cabinet for milk’ was being thwarted (the bruises on his thighs betrayed the vigour of his efforts!).
So instead he decided to go down onto his stomach and crawl under the obstacle. It was a good plan, but it relied also on a degree of vision which he did not possess, and unfortunately he instead negotiated his way under a long long long nest of trolleys which of course are left handily beside the barrier. He had got part way down this tunnel, on his stomach, and may have succeeded in emerging at the far end, had an unfortunate snag not impeded his progress. The ‘snag’ was literally a loop of wool on his pullover which caught in a badly-placed hook of steel that had escaped quality control at the trolley factory. It had escaped, but John wasn’t going to. You can imagine the performance involved in releasing him………………
….but anyway……..John happened to be walking through the park on the day the man took the seizure, and speaking to everyone he met whether he knew them or not. And came to the man who was slumped forwards and had been ignored by all the other passers by in the park on this sunny day. The man did not answer John’s loud salutation. So John came closer to get it all in focus and realized there was a problem. He immediately dragged the man onto the ground, put him in the recovery position, cleared his airway, head back, picked up the man’s mobile phone and dialled 999 for an ambulance. When he saw the ambulance appear and other onlookers had got involved, he wandered off and promptly got thrown out of another shop for pestering the shop assistants. The man’s family was able to track down John fairly easily.
The letter he’d sent asked me to pass on the man’s thanks to John, and wondered could he come and meet this chap who’d saved his life. He thanked my staff for ‘training him to do what he did so well’. I spoke with a rather nonchalant John about the incident, and asked what had happened and he explained, and I asked how he knew what to do……
He laughed and said “Been in institutions all my life, seen lots of people have fits and seizures and they all fall down and the staff just put them on their side and pull their heads back and that does the trick. Anyway got to go, things to see, stuff to do. Bye” and he waltzed off, a contented man whose life was simply an ongoing adventure to be sucked in and enjoyed. The meeting between John and the man whose life he’d saved was one I’ll remember.
When my partner Melanie hit the deck earlier this week, several of the people surrounding her administering first aid were strangers. Their efforts made a difference. How much of a difference will be revealed in the days ahead. But without their efforts Melanie would have had no chance.
All of you who have sent your messages of support over the last 24 hours, many of you are strangers, in so far as we’ve never met. But your support does matter. It does make a difference.
And to all the cynics who “just don’t get it” maybe one day you’ll need assistance, and whatever that passing stranger may be able to give – at that moment – may be just what you need. Even if all they may be able to offer are a few simple words.
I was looking out the window of the hospital Intensive Care Unit the day before yesterday. From a comfortable waiting room. I was on the second floor and looking at a flat roof covered in gravel, and there was a medical ‘thing’ in a plastic wrapper lying there. Close enough to see it was something ‘invasive’, but too far to discern just what exactly. I wondered how it got there.
But I know for sure how I got there. In a Police car with the two gently concerned officers who called at my house at mid-day, and made me drop my half-eaten lunch and step over all the bags of shopping I’d just brought in from the supermarket.
It was the “Are you the next of kin…………” phrase we are familiar with, but hope not to hear.
I said “Yes”.
And then I was whisked off to the Intensive Care Unit. Their explanation as we drove was stark “You partner collapsed. Her heart stopped. She had just parked her work car in the car park and she and her colleague ran to the office. She fell. Her colleague thought she’d tripped. But realized it wasn’t a trip. She shouted for help and banged the door and started cpr. Two colleagues ran out, one called an ambulance the other with real presence of mind ran across the road to the Fire Station opposite and returned with a fireman with a defib unit. A passing Police car returning to the Police Station saw the commotion and got involved. Three people with first responder skills on site within minutes.”
I was confronted by a big bed surrounded by lots of beeping, chirping, humming machines. Each one had wires, tubes, lines but all converging on one small woman in the bed, lying very still. There’s a chiller unit working hard to lower her temperature. This I’m told will help prevent the brain swelling which they’ve detected, from getting any worse. Her small hand is frozen.
Yesterday the scene was the same when I arrived in the morning.
But to my surprise there was a picture of our wee lad William (aged 5) smiling up from the bottom of his mum’s bed. One of our friends had thoughtfully printed it off, put it in frame and brought it in. Those little things that matter at times like this, that you don’t think about until someone does them for you.
The nurses are quiet and considerate. “You might find writing a diary is useful” said one. “Many relatives find it useful and maybe therapeutic to keep a log of whats happening and how they feel. Even if you don’t write much its useful”
“Thank you” I said “I do a wee bit of writing and can understand that. But actually I’m more of a photographer and try and make sense of stuff visually, if that makes any sense?” Is it ok for me to take a photograph? Just so that I can show Melanie this when she…if she….well you know what I mean………”
“I’m really really sorry but you can’t. Its our rules I’m afraid. Under the Incapacity Act your partner hasn’t given her consent so I can’t permit you to”
“Oh. Right. Ok I understand”. I said. But in that moment I didn’t really understand.
I came home via my friend Cat’s house. She’d collected William from his primary school, and looked after him all afternoon and into the evening.
“How is it?” she asked, with a warm hug, just what I needed at that moment, as I see my wee boy laughing and playing behind her with her two wee boys, his classmates in Primary 1.
“Tomorrow they’re going to switch off some of the support equipment and see what happens. She’s sedated, and ventilated so they’ll ease off on that, then its scans, heart, brain and just try to get a sense of whats going on. But they are completely stumped to explain what’s caused this. No idea.”
Cat told me she had gone in to the hospital late in the evening the previous night, after I had collected William, to see Melanie.
“I was amazed” she said quietly “at how lovely Melanie looked. She’s a pretty lady anyway, but she just looked particularly lovely. She was incredibly peaceful but looked radiant, just glowing!”
She was right. I had not missed that either. Melanie has dark mediterranean skin, long dark hair and is slim and elegant. She’s a fit, active and youthful 40 years old, and is fiercely intelligent to go with it. Formidable. And lovely. Cat was right, she looked amazing, flawless olive skin, with her thick dark hair swept back.
But I can’t show you how lovely she looks, so I’m taking the nurse’s advice and am writing this down, just to tell you.
( Read John’s humbling update to this ‘story’ is here)
During our summer holidays to visit his great-grandmother in England, she told William the story of how during WW2 a Lancaster bomber had crashed into a field near where she’d lived, coming to rest in a hedge in flames, and how they’d had to go and help rescue the pilots. William was totally fascinated:
“A real bomber nan?”
And they talked together about it, he 5 years old, she 89 years old. Living history, passed down in the best way possible.
A few months later it was great grandnan’s 90th birthday. William decided to make her a special card.
I think this is a great idea, nicely done. And there’s a lovely moment when he sees himself in the mirror. Though I think his look of total skepticism when they start putting silver strips on his hair almost beats it…
I almost fell off my chair yesterday when I heard that statement, particularly the comment in that last paragraph. It was stated in several news reports this week, but to my utter astonishment went unchallenged by any correspondent. I thought it might be a misrepresentation of something quoted and not correctly reported by the press. But to my surprise it was repeated verbatim in several papers, the quote I’ve given above coming from the Australian media.
This one comment, from a (presumably) well-informed professional in the Australian art world, at a stroke and with breathtaking arrogance, completely dismisses the rich aboriginal visual culture that predates European colonization by thousands of years.
Truth is, aboriginal rock art is one of the oldest continuous art traditions in the world. Many Australian rock art sites have been carefully examined and determined to be about 40,000 years old, and some are even older. The art is not simply decorative, but contains stories and symbols based on ‘the Dreamtime’, the stories handed down from generation to generation for tens of thousands of years, and which are celebrated in songs and ceremonies that continue to this day.
It is perhaps not insignificant that aboriginal representations of ‘kongouros’ invariably show them facing forwards, yet the very first European painting of one by Stubb has the animal looking over its shoulder, wary, ready to flee. Art at its most revealing, hinting strongly at the ways differing cultures interpret and interact with the world around them, and are thus reflected in the artwork they create.
Aboriginal art is still widely practised, is highly collectible, and continues to reflect the rich visual culture of Australia. But there’s aboriginal photography too. One photographer in particular stands out for me, Michael Riley.
Sadly Riley died young, aged only 44, but the legacy he leaves behind eloquently builds on the rich traditions of storytelling and symbolism of his ancestors. His work is powerful, challenging, political and impressively lyrical. The series of portraits of the residents of his mother’s and father’s home towns of Moree (A common place: Portraits of Moree Murries 1990) and Dubbo (Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve 1998) are a rare and intimate celebration of ordinary aboriginal people, at ease in the place they call home. For me the simple earthen toned background to the sitters is reminiscent of a sheet of stone, giving these insightful portraits an uncanny resemblance to ‘rock art’, but instead hewn from a contemporary medium. And in their simple and spare frames each subject ineluctably hinting at Riley’s aspiration for the immutability of his people, their culture, and their richly visual tradition of art, an art inextricably tied to the land, their land.
But Riley was not afraid to be overtly political and explore the experience of being a black man in ‘modern’ Australia, confronting head-on the racist taunts and jibes that he had experienced as a youth in his series ‘They call me niigarr’. These are a powerful appropriation of the language of oppression – using the transmutative ability of art to signify strength: of character, culture and belonging.
I suspect Riley would have been more dismayed by the comments from the National Gallery of Australia than he would have been by being called a “niigarr”. At least the latter, however distasteful and pejorative, acknowledges his presence.
For their part, rather than lament what they failed to obtain for their collection, the National Gallery might do better to give some consideration to the astonishing range of aboriginal rock art that is under constant threat of destruction from vandalism, erosion and industrial development and the loss of which will be far more damaging to Australian visual culture than the absence of the Stubb paintings. If this ancient artistic heritage is allowed to disappear, with it will go the rich and and symbolically powerful story of the first inhabitants of this vast continent.
The Stubb paintings, and the comments uttered over their loss, represent only the story of Australia’s very recent colonization.
I’ll let Michael Riley himself have the last word, from an introduction to his 1992 series ‘Sacrifice’ a starkly powerful body of b&w images that reflect on the continuing effects of substance misuse and religion, and their role in the colonization and oppression of aboriginal people.