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Keeping it real

Using photographs of actual patients and carers gives greater impact to communications

patientsMuch UK patient literature is still filled with soulless images of smiling models, with perfect white teeth, taken in staged locations. National Health Service GPs are represented in white laboratory coats caring for well-groomed patients; the elderly are shown walking hand in hand on sunny beaches and children are shown looking wholesome and relaxed. Isn't it time for a reality check?

Of course, there will always be a desire to produce marketing materials that are attractive, glossy and easy on the eye, but for many audiences, and particularly patients, the power of communication in the materials comes from being able to identify with others in similar situations. It is this which can affect changes in behaviour for those involved in marketing. Surely it is still possible to make the materials appealing, corporate and professional – just more personal and real.

Gaining consent
When taking photographs of patients in hospital and in surgeries, nobody can guarantee the outcome and that is the challenge and enjoyment of the work. Each visit and project offers a unique chance to share people's stories and experiences and disseminate these through different marketing media.

The time spent talking to patients is as important as the time spent taking the photographs themselves. By talking to patients with sensitivity, it is possible to explain why the images are being taken, how they will be used and to talk more about the illness and treatment, ensuring that appropriate and relevant images are captured.

Every patient signs a consent form prior to being photographed, as do the staff. Interestingly, as soon as many of them see the model release form, they are amused to find themselves classified as models and the banter begins. Not everyone wants to be photographed in hospital at a difficult time, but many find sharing their story a release, and often it adds much-needed cheer to a day.

To visit people in the midst of life-threatening illnesses, fearful of surgery or coping with challenging treatments can seem daunting to the photographer too, but patients show much humour and honesty. There is generally a relaxed atmosphere while the photographs are being taken, with little interruption to routine activity.

Patients' relevant comments are noted and linked with the images for use as captions or quotations. Their words can be inspiring and comforting to others starting a similar treatment journey.

Gaining consent for an external photographer to visit a hospital or unit can be a major hurdle. Usually, projects have been requested by the hospital for exhibitions, such as a recent Florence Nightingale Museum exhibition that needed images of current nursing practice. Alternatively, entry is allowed because health professionals in the hospital are supporting national patient information campaigns or want images for their own use. Hospitals and staff are offered copies of the images. Generally, an agreement is reached, allowing a selection of images to be supplied to the Science Photo Library, which supplies stock imagery to the medical communications sector.

Capturing the moment
One of the hardest things about taking these photographs is the lack of time to 'set up' or 'stage' shots – it's all about capturing the moment that a wound is stitched, a dressing is put on, a nurse tenderly squeezes a patient's hand.

The images are used for patient education, magazines and newsletters, hospital exhibitions, patient information for charities, annual reports, GP surgeries' booklets and websites.

Working closely with patients and staff ensures that the results are what is really needed by the end user, not what companies and agencies may think is needed.

The Author
Victoria Lush is a writer and photographer at Life in View
To comment on this article, email

30th April 2009


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