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Emma Barnard has taken photographs of patients just as they have been given the diagnosis of their condition and then asked them to express their feelings by drawing on their own image. She talks to Amie Mulderrig about the project
An endless flurry of patients pass through the doors of Whipps Cross University Hospital in east London.
Who are they? What have they been diagnosed with? What course of treatment are they undertaking?
These themes are explored by artist-in- residence Emma Barnard in a new exhibition, Patients as People, which is currently being displayed in the main entrance of the hospital’s outpatients unit.
Collaborating with patients, Barts health consultant ENT surgeon Michael Papesch and with public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, a total of 48 portraits are on show, displayed in a Perspex screen with white lighting, as if the images are part of a large X-ray.
“Patients as people is about making visual the unseen,“ explains Emma. “When a patient is in the consultancy room, they’re very much wearing a mask, they’ve very respectful and reverential towards the consultants.
“This exhibition is part of a larger project that is about the depersonalisation of patients that can happen in hospital, the feeling of losing your identity, and also of being overwhelmed or swamped by your illness.
“I was there as an observer, patients were asked if they would mind spending time with me, and then I would take them to another room and they would reveal their feelings at what was a very emotional time.
“After, they revealed how they felt in what was often a terrifying environment – some of these patients have been diagnosed with serious illnesses, such as cancer.“
Taking headshots of each of the patients willing to take part in the project, patients were then asked to write and draw on the images, straight after diagnosis, expressing how they felt.
Although 48 portraits are being exhibited, Emma revealed that since she started Patients as People 18 months ago, she has far more images, which will go on display in future exhibitions, with one at the William Morris Gallery and the Royal College of Physicians. The show is also part of a bigger project, Patients As Paper, which looks at depersonalisation in medicine.
“Art is very therapeutic, it’s a time to contemplate, reflect on what’s just happened,“ Emma says. “But it can be quite tough to follow patients in this way, especially as part of the project can be following patients through their pathways. After the initial referral, then the worst case scenario would involve further treatment such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy. With their permission, I would follow them further on their journey.
“It is quite hard, you can’t cut yourself off emotionally. I have empathy for them and I’m very humbled by the experience. This human condition is really quite raw. You see so much courage and determination, particularly when you follow someone undergoing treatment for cancer.
“Illness doesn’t discriminate, people from all walks of life are affected, and everyone’s experiences are so different, it really underlines just how unique we all are.
“People aren’t just a number and this exhibition is about giving each of them a voice.“
Patients as People is in the Outpatients department main entrance, Whipps Cross University Hospital, Whipps Cross Road, Waltham Forest until the end of April.