The first time Nurse Marta and Photographer Marta went head to head was in Cuba in 2011. I had been invited into a family home to document life in Havana Veija. There were 3 generations living in 2 rooms...one of which had a caved in ceiling. I remember taking pictures of the ceiling turning around, and seeing this scene.
I instantly saw the vulnerability in my subject and the photographer in me clapped with glee and took the picture. The glee lasted a nanosecond before the nurse in me went "What the hell! Quit taking pictures and help".
Here I was feeling ashamed for " documenting " someone's reality instead of helping them. I remember asking the family if he was ok as he retched away. They told me he had picked up a stomach bug and had seen the doctor. The old man and the entire family tried allaying my concerns and fears. I remember leaving their home reminding myself that Cuba has an excellent healthcare system and that he was well cared for.
For 2 years I felt horribly guilty about recording the vulnerability in this image. I felt like I did the wrong thing in taking it...somehow violated a rule of humanity. But with time I have accepted that I was invited to document and tell this story....that my subject had given me permission...it wasn't surreptitiously obtained...and no matter what the crazy nurse in me thinks....I am not responsible for the entire universe and in that moment I was there as a photographer and storyteller...not a nurse or healer.
Since taking the image above I paid more attention to this inner conflict and identity crisis, and the way it impacts my photography. For instance, the image below has a story that demonstrates that.
I was at Angkor Wat grabbing a bite at a food stand when I spotted this 3 year old napping in her hammock. Took the shot and then did my usual thing and started asking what the story was...she was clearly unwell. Her family said she had been on her father's motorbike 4 days prior and when she climbed off had burnt her leg on the exhaust pipe.
I asked to see her wound and was shocked when I saw them lift a cloth off her leg to reveal a large deep purulent wound. The nurse in me was horrified. When I asked about medical care they showed me some pills they had got from a pharmacist in town....they were not sure what they were or what they did. You could see her family loved her dearly and were very concerned for her. I couldn't imagine being in their shoes.
I say that because in that moment I myself felt overwhelmingly impotent. To not have my usual arsenal of Healthcare resources to help her. I headed back to the hotel I was staying at and raided the medical kit I had packed for myself. So grateful for my pre-trip paranoia and crazy ICU nurse mentality of "be prepared for anything"...there was enough dressing material and topical antimicrobials to last the little girl for 3 weeks.
The translator was wonderful in explaining to the family what to do with the materials. It felt so crazy weird and surreal to be taking off my Photographer hat and putting on my Nurse hat in the middle of Cambodia.
A few weeks after getting back from Cambodia I got an email from one of the guides from the trip. She said the little girl had healed up well and was running around doing what little girls do. It made me think of how grateful I am for all I have.
In this case I became part of the story...and as a photographer I paused and didn't capture the other images that would have enriched the storytelling (her wound, her mother's face etc). But truly I don't believe that would have better served the universe. I have learned sometimes I need to shelf the photographer in me and instead become an active part of a story. Others may disagree, but i believe that is what the universe prefers I do. Better that things went the way they did.