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june 2013

The visiting nurses


  On photography and Health Care
by Hans Durrer
Next Right: Photo by Emelle Sonh from the series Visiting Nurses (2006)

Recently, while looking through past issues of Private, one of my favourite photography reviews, I came across photos by Linsey Addario entitled "Mississippi Health Care" (Private 57, Winter 2012). The first picture shows four overweight blacks (two male, two female), three of them sitting on a bench, the fourth standing, looking pensive and sorrowful. On the second picture, I see a seemingly uninhabited and abandoned wooden house in the foreground and an ordinary looking apartment block in the background, the text below the pic reads: "Nowhere is the American Health Care System more broken and desperate than rural Mississippi. The impoverished state has some of the highest rate of diabetes, obesity, infant mortality and AIDS, among other ailments, in the country." Another photo shows obese 19-year old Maranda Corely in her bedroom, together with her two prematurely born and seriously disabled twins, as the caption tells me. Again another photo taken in a seemingly poor neighbourhood shows a man and a woman sitting on folding chairs on the street while conversing with two guys standing against the side of a car.

  I'm not really sure what these pictures tell me (or should tell me) about the American Health Care System. What I see are poor people, most of them obese, in poor living conditions. I fail to see the connection to the American Health Care System, even when looking at a pic of a health care worker, rather obese herself, in conversation with a "normal"-looking young woman. In other words: to show me deplorable living conditions does not show me anything about any health care system.
  But how do you / could you make visible the American Health Care System? There are limits as to what photographs can do, and something as abstract as a system doesn't really give itself to being pictured. As Rebecca Solnit once penned (in: "Rivers of Shadows. Eadweard Muybridge and the technological Wild West"): "... there are things it is nearly impossible to photograph: the subtle workings of the human heart, the wandering paths desire and fury take, the bonds of love and blood that tie people together, the decisions that tear them apart, the way that the most unprepossessing landscape can become home and thus speak of stories, traditions, gods that strangers cannot decipher from the rocks and streams."
Next Left: Photo by Emelle Sonh from the series Visiting Nurses (2006)

My friend, San Francisco photo-artist Emelle Sonh, showed me however that there is indeed a way to make visible some aspects of the American Health Care System. In 2006, in the Mojave Desert, California (also known as the Hi-Desert), she was commissioned to create photo-images which showed the work of the visiting nurses of the Hi-Desert. Emelle travelled over a two-week period with several nurses on seemingly endless roads through the desert landscape, thus the images of car, and car keys. For privacy reasons, she was told to exclude faces of clients to the extent possible.

  Here's what Emelle says about her photo essay — I quote her at length for I believe that in order to understand what our eyes are showing us, we need to know the process in which the project came into being (there aren't many reportage photos that can speak for themselves):
  "The reason I formatted the photo essay as "a day in the life" was to show the reality of the work — lots of preparation (on the phone, driving, back in the office on the phone and maintaining records) and follow-up. The work — in this field and every field — is mostly in the pre and post — it is essentially a process and not an event. I wanted to make that visible because I think it is a common error to only see the event and not the process of work ... helping as a nurse, writing, making art ... are all processes or relationships which take time and effort and cannot be seen accurately as "the book" or "the painting" or "the photograph" or "the time spent checking blood pressure" — it is all we do to be ready for those events which makes the event possible — and it is only a part, usually a small part, of the process."
  2013 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes