The Other Side of the Lens

October 11, 2010 § 5 Comments

Photo by Robert Peinert © All rights reserved.

Guest post by Robert Peinert

For the past two years, I worked as a medical photographer and videographer during my graduate studies. While I primarily worked for a general surgery department, I often found myself documenting orthopedic and neurosurgical cases as well, in part due to my boss’ involvement with these other departments. Because of my background – mother was a nurse, father is an orthopedic surgeon – I have spent some time in and around operating rooms and surgeons’ clinics, allowing me to become familiar with the general instruments and supplies used in any case. Because of this, while photographing or filming, I would be often asked to grab something – usually gauze or sterile towels, etc….you know, the simple, everyday stuff.

Late one Wednesday afternoon, I was walking with my boss to the operating room. I was heading to photograph a skin graft of the upper body and face; he was checking-in on the attending and residents about to perform the surgery, then heading to a meeting. He was immediately approached by the head resident for the case: “No one else is available – no medical students, no other residents (those in the hospital were in other cases), and we can’t reach the attending.” My boss said it was not a problem and that I could help with the case. He immediately turned to me and asked if I would assist in the case and he would find someone else to take the desired photographs. I was excited and frightened at the same time. Sure, I had “helped” before; but this would involve scrubbing in, and playing a more involved role in the surgery. A student assistant from the department soon arrived to take the pictures and I explained what specifically they wanted captured; I then went to scrub in. My boss and the resident assured me it would be fine; my boss then explained my background to all the staff involved, and there was a sigh of relief after my boss said, “He is probably more qualified to be in here than some of our first-year medical students.” Trying not to blush – because that made me feel very assured of myself – I was aided by one of the surgical techs as I put my sterile gown and gloves on and nervously awaited instruction.

Photo by Robert Peinert © All rights reserved.

A lot of my involvement included holding the legs as the donor skin was retrieved. As I looked to my side, I saw the student moving around and taking pictures. That is when it hit me – I went from the medical photographer, to the one in the photograph. Photographers often refer to – and enjoy – being on the “other” side of [or behind] the lens (or camera); but I was on the OTHER side of the camera. It was a slight shock because I now understood how others felt when I was photographing a case.

When I take pictures, because of my knowledge of general operating-room sterile practices, I do not hesitate to move all around to get the “perfect angle.” In fact, I am sure I make most of the OR staff nervous because they are afraid I will bump this or contaminate that.

Once the donor skin was retrieved, it was readied for placement. I was then told to grab a stapler and help attach the skin. Again, this surprised me because I figured I would simply be holding again. My boss eventually came back, along with one of the other head residents; both somewhat surprised by how much I was involved. All the staff seemed surprised at just how much I knew and was capable of doing.

While my attention was focused on the patient, I couldn’t help randomly look over at the person taking photographs….the person doing MY job. I knew I was playing a much more involved role, but it was still weird being a person in the surgery, rather than a person observing/documenting – the role I was more accustom to.

Photo by Robert Peinert © All rights reserved.

This experience changed my role in the department…and throughout the entire hospital. No, I did not start helping out is every surgery; nor did I give up my role of a medical photographer. However, I found myself more involved in surgeries; more surgeons allowing me to scrub in and assist – or at least to get a closer look. This opportunity led to some exciting things, including – holding a human heart, assisting during an intracranial procedure, and many others.

While I still prefer being the one to photograph surgeries rather than DO them, being able switch roles has definitely made my involvement much more enjoyable and satisfying.

Robert Peinert is a medical photographer based in South Texas. He has been practicing photography for nearly 10 years, with the last three focused on medical and commercial.

Note: The photos in this post are not from the described case.

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§ 5 Responses to The Other Side of the Lens

  • Vijay says:

    Great post, Robert.

    Øystein, you ought to get Robert to write more posts here. I like his writing style. I thought it was very similar to Bongi’s style.

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Vijay! I guess all those writing courses during my undergrad helped.

  • Jurgen says:

    Lovely post and what an exciting opportunity. I’m just starting out as a medical photographer, photographing mostey gross anatomy specimens from Post-mortems and surgeries, so I haven’t been able to go into an operating theatre yet….but I can relate to your excitement and the change of roles!

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  • BoxlineBox says:

    I have had similar experiences in the OR. I’ve been producing live surgery events, shooting for the record and helping surgeons document cases for about 15 years now. Every once in a while I’ll have an opportunity to “help” with a case. This is generally due to the surgeon’s comfort with my abilities and knowledge but sometimes due to staffing needs, especially when I’m working in Haiti. It is a thrill and huge responsibility to be trusted in the OR but I agree with the author, I much prefer being behind the camera rather than in front!

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