Jeff Rhode has the highly unusual role as a full-time hospital photographer. In this interview, he shares his heart-rending photographs of COVID-19 patients and the staff supporting them and talks about the experience of photographing history as it happens.
When I first came across Jeff's photographs, my mind spun. How on earth did he get access or permission to photograph patients at such a vulnerable time? I reached out, and we discussed the project.
Warning: it's not for the faint-hearted.
Becoming a Hospital Photographer
Jeff became a full-time hospital photographer nine years ago. He told me: 'When the hospital started to prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak, I saw it as an opportunity to document what was happening as it unfolded'.
I couldn't help wondering how this kind of opportunity might have come about. Jeff talked me through his journey through photography: from majoring in fine art photography in college, he then worked in a commercial photo lab for two years and moved on to work at The Star-Ledger, which was the largest daily newspaper in New Jersey. At The Star-Ledger, Jeff was a photo specialist. It was largely a technical role, but he also shot freelance work throughout his career. He worked at The Star-Ledger for 15 years, through many historical events: a Papal visit, a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for breaking news, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its connection to New Jersey.
It was this experience that gave Jeff the courage and experience to cover the COVID-19 pandemic at Holy Name Medical Center.
Emotional Experience of Photographing a Pandemic
Courage to start the project is one thing, but how about coping with the emotional experience of photographing people at the end of their life? Jeff told me: "It's a challenge to photograph anything emotional without being emotional at the time. It doesn't always work that way. But having the support of everyone I work with is amazing."
The nurses held his hand and talked to him. They called his caregiver to let her know that things did not look good for his health, and they told her she could talk to him on speakerphone. The caregiver told him that she was there for him, and that she loved him. Over the next hour or two, we traded spots holding his hand, rubbing his shoulder, and talking to him, even though he was unconscious. I carefully took photos of selected moments — this was a very emotional time for everyone, and I didn't want to take that away. When the patient stabilized, we went our separate ways for a while. I heard from one of the nurses that he passed away that night.
Approaching the Project
The social importance of photographing the pandemic must be incredibly intense. Jeff told me that he was asked about two weeks into the pandemic what it feels like to document history. Hearing that question made him feel a responsibility to tell the most complete and honest story that he could. He said: "I feel lucky and blessed to have been able to do that and share the experiences of everyone at Holy Name."
Health and Safety Precautions
Having been more or less housebound during two months of lockdown, I simply can't imagine going into a hospital environment knowing there'll be significant exposure to COVID-19. Jeff explained that the hospital planned well, and all personnel at the hospital were provided with appropriate personal protective equipment throughout the pandemic (if only this had been true of many hospitals here in the UK). He wears the same PPE that the clinical team wears: hair covering, goggles, gown, two pairs of gloves, mask, and shoe covers. And after photographing any situation that might involve a chance of exposure to the virus, Jeff sanitizes his cameras carefully with sanitizing wipes.
As a portrait photographer, I'm used to reaching for a variety of lenses to mix and match for different effects and different scenarios. Given a hospital ward is so physically confined, I wondered which camera equipment it was possible to use. Jeff told me: "I chose to be close to my subjects, to provide a more intimate feel to the images. I wanted to be part of the experience and not witness it from a distance. My daily gear of choice has been a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 24-105mm f/4 and a Canon 5D Mark III with a 16-35mm f/2.8."
I couldn't help but wonder about the legal aspects of such a project. How do you deal with privacy laws, and how does this apply if patients are unconscious? Jeff told me that there are strict privacy laws in place designed to protect patients that prevent their identity from being disclosed without permission. If he is not able to get permission from the patient or his/her caregiver, he doesn't photograph them. Occasionally, a patient might agree to be photographed, but ask to not show his or her face, which, of course, Jeff respects.
It's a relief to hear from Jeff that he already sees quite an improvement in the hospital. I wondered what will happen to the project once the pandemic improves. It turns out that Jeff is already exploring new stories as Holy Name shifts into recovery mode: first, the tremendous effort going into sanitizing the hospital, second, following patients who are recovering at home after being discharged. Their home care is a continuation of the support they received at Holy Name, with nurses and therapists using telemedicine, as well as home visits.
Brenda told me 'it's not a sunny day, but it is a great day' with a smile. The first patient since the COVID-19 pandemic started two weeks ago had been extubated [when the doctor takes out a tube that helps you breathe] — a milestone. She smiled and told me that M&M's were her weakness as the empty bag sat next to her.
Hats off to you, Jeff. You're a brave man, taking wonderful photographs during an incredibly difficult situation.
Could you ever photograph a scenario like this? To be honest, I don't think I could.
Images used with permission of Jeff Rhode.