Developing Expression
Photography in a Healthcare Environment
by Helen Gulliver

Source - Issue 11 - Spring Summer - 1997 - Click for Contents

Issue 11 Spring Summer 1997
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"It is now beginning to be recognised that exposure to the arts has a beneficial effect on people in hospitals. The success of organisations devoted to the use of the arts is documented by testimonials from physicians and patients, and by statistics of accelerated recovery and lower use of pain relieving drugs among those who have access to the arts." (Moss, Linda, Art for Health's Sake, London: Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, 1987).

'Art' takes various forms within the constructs of today's health care systems, most commonly in three areas: professional and charitable organisations dedicated to the provision of art within hospitals existing to acquire art works and to commission site specific works; Art Therapy, with its roots in the diagnostic potential of the medium, which began to emerge as a profession around the 1930's, as part of the treatment of patients in psychiatric care and is now accepted as a recognised part of the NHS; and as Occupational Therapy which uses art and crafts as a rehabilitative and diversionary activity.

The Art In Hospital project was initiated in Glasgow during 1991 specifically to demonstrate the positive role which the arts could play in the quality of care for patients in the Health Care Service. The areas of practice of Art In Hospital overlap to varying degrees those forms outlined above, yet the project, despite often being confused for, is substantially different from each. The project involves patients in 'therapeutic' art activity, delivered through 'workshops' which are facilitated by professional graduate artists, and are ongoing. Art activity has included painting, drawing, printmaking, papermaking, textiles and photography, which are complemented by music, books, and gallery visits. The activity encourages patients to express themselves using a visual medium, in some cases the function of speech having been restricted or lost through illness.

The project currently works within six residential hospitals throughout Glasgow. Patients involved are suffering from strokes, senile dementia and other age related illnesses. Nearly all are confined to wheelchairs and through illness, social circumstances or both are unable to be looked after at home.

The role of the artist within Art In Hospital is as facilitator, rather than teacher, enabling and encouraging patients to make creative decisions and exert control over their own creative process. Photography has traditionally been used within elderly care, predominantly in its capacity as a departure point in reminiscence work. The approach of the artist is therefore critical in presenting photography as a potential forward-looking and creative tool.

The photographic equipment selected has played an important part, with the polaroid camera proving most effective through its ease of use and immediacy - generating 'successes', and thus encouraging confidence and discussion. The immediacy also plays an important part in helping to counter problems which short-term memory can create, such as an inability to recognise photographs after the period of time required to process and print the film.

The first photographic work began at Belvedere Hospital on the wards and day rooms, with patients responding to their own familiar surroundings, initially photographing each other, and then over a period of time photographing their personal spaces and belongings such as photographs, handbags, a collection of betting slips, ornaments etc. This started a dialogue, with patients in effect using photographs to express themselves and what is important to them.

Cowglen, Blawarthill and Lenzie Hospitals and their grounds have become the subject matter for numerous studies, imaging flora, shadows, gardens, architecture, portraiture and landscapes. Photography is by its nature different from the other 'therapeutic art activities' offered by Art In Hospital, and brings with it its unique problems and limitations such as the constant need for new subjects - you can only photograph the hospital grounds a finite number of times, in addition to the need for more hands on assistance.

Marion MacDonald in particular, a patient of Cowglen Hospital responded positively to the polaroid instant cameras, she created her own method of working, utilising the particular strengths of polaroid photography and overcoming the problems inherent in the apparent limits in subject matter. Her photographs, mainly still life, often combine painterly and photographic imagery. During the period 1994-1996, she honed her technique, meticulously creating her unique photographic compositions. Arrangements created from her own belongings, found objects, and objects bought specifically for the images were composed, and a 'sketch' photograph made. The arrangement was then tweaked and altered, and another image made. The process continued until MacDonald was satisfied with the final piece. She was rigorous in her selection, and this shines through in the finished work, some of which is enlarged using a colour photocopier, showing the finer details.

A selection of the photographs generated have been exhibited both within the hospitals and formal gallery spaces, presenting the work to a wider audience.

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