This is the twenty second blog in a series on COVID-19 and lockdown, edited by firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Together we are stronger – Inside an NHS Hospital during COVID-19
In 2005 I began my career in the NHS as an operating theatre assistant at the Royal Gwent Hospital, Newport. I came from a factory job, taking voluntary redundancy because I wanted to do something else. I left a comfortable well-paid job, working with my two brothers, and found myself a spectator in the Operating Theatre as an emergency procedure took place. Against all odds, the patient survived and weeks later I watched him walk with his family to the car park and return home. It felt incredible to be working within the NHS and I knew that this was where I meant to be.
Sixteen years later, I’m an Operating Department Practitioner (ODP), specialising in anaesthetics. I’m working on the frontline and in my own time capturing the pandemic through photography. I never wanted to be a photographer but my wife saw something and bought me a camera seven years ago. I was addicted from the first sound of the shutter. Landscape photography became my first love, I wanted to capture vibrant colours and enjoy being in the hills around Abergavenny with just my dog Max. I sold my first camera to pay bills, something I regret to this day. A year later my wife bought me a Nikon D5200 for my birthday and it became my COVID-19 camera. I have always admired the work of Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, David Hurn, and Vivian Maier. Mary Ellen Mark’s images especially touched me. They told stories that resonated with me and I wanted to create the same feel in my images.
How did I get the opportunity to document the pandemic which so many photojournalists have been denied? The day Dr Ami Jones MBE (‘Wales’ flying medic chief’) talked about how this could be the biggest challenge the NHS has ever faced, I contacted the Aneurin Bevan Health Board communications team. A few days later after seeing some of my work, we began a relationship based on doing things right. Whether it be consent or showing the public exactly what was going on within the NHS. I promised myself that I would be respectful towards staff, patients (& the deceased) and their families but I would do whatever it took to help.
Of course, I knew that there was potential for these images to be around forever and be there for future generations but what drove me? Was it attention? No. ‘Glenn Dene’ (my photographic nom de plume) doesn't matter, the images are what matters. Showing the world how we stood up to the coronavirus challenge and how we fought back, how we got one another through and how as a country we’re made of something.
The only time I ever pose an image is for a portrait. Staff are too busy to stop and pose, the light isn’t right? Wait. Too many photographers create scenes or miss an opportunity of a strong image and then recreate it. To me, it’s wrong. I practice being invisible, you have to be patient. It may take hours but just like having a baby, you don’t remember the sleepless nights or the teething. You remember the smiles. I remember the images, not the hours. Whenever I meet new staff I introduce myself and explain why I have a camera. 99.9% of the time we enjoy some banter, this makes people comfortable with you. Part of the process is having a good relationship with people. Now I have such a strong connection with Intensive care, obstetrics, and theatres that even when the camera isn’t there our teamwork is better.
I use the rear tiltable LCD screen of the Nikon D5200 most of the time. When you put your eye to the viewfinder of the camera the subject knows you are getting ready to take a photograph; some act differently. Having the ability to look down and still view the scene is invaluable. Before digital photography, I could see myself using a Rolleiflex camera like Vivian Maier. it separates you slightly from the subject and as someone who only likes attention on my terms and being a little socially anxious, it makes a difference.
My life has changed personally and professionally due to the pandemic. I’ve done things as an ODP that I never thought I could do; when consultants have struggled to insert an intravenous cannula, I’ve stepped up and been successful. I’ve done Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and brought people back. Like everyone, the last year or so has been a bumpy road but I’m determined now more than ever to continue giving my all and document our journey. If you go into a huge project like capturing a pandemic you have to give it everything but also understand the importance of truth. There are photographers out there that I admired and then realised that their photographs may have been faked including documentary photographers and photojournalists. I’ve seen photographers apparently generate a contrived image in my opinion and then appear to fabricate the caption in a newspaper. It would’ve been easy for me to photograph my mates in PPE for two weeks and try to gain some sort of success but that just isn't who I am. Last year our book ‘Behind the Mask’ was released and the royalties are going towards the wellbeing of staff. In June 2021 a second book will be released and the same will happen again. I worry about NHS staff and the whole country post COVID-19. Mental and physical health issues are going to be around long after and we have to put things in place now because there will be a storm when it hits. In every Hospital the heartbeat should be the well-being department. The NHS needs to take care of staff - then we’re in the best place to provide the best care possible to our patients.
Aneurin Bevan said “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.” We are at a crossroads when it comes to the people who provide care in this country. We’ve seen the importance of the NHS and key workers during the pandemic. No more clapping, no more conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccination. Let us make positive changes to the way we see one another and the way we see the National Health Service. Together we’re stronger.
Editor’s note: Glenn’s images have been exhibited in The National Portrait Gallery, winning an award from the RPS Royal patron, the Duchess of Cambridge. His images have been featured on BBC, ITV and Channel 4, BBC Wales, and in The Western Mail newspaper.
His book ‘Behind the Mask: The NHS family and the fight with COVID-19’ ISBN 978-1913634872 was No1 in the Amazon Photojournalism charts.
Other blogs in this series: