Amy Oulton photographs her experiences in hospitals

Hospitals are places that everyone is free to have access to, but that no one has free access to. Occupying this strange space between a public and private domain results in buildings that belong to everyone and yet are controlled by someone else.

This is never more obvious than when you try to take photographs in a hospital. It’s fair enough, and obvious, that snapping away at sick and injured patients without consent is unacceptable. However, from my experience of being an inpatient with a camera on a ward full of consenting adults and trying to photograph the empty public spaces of various hospitals, the rules prevent anyone from doing so.

My first experience of trying to photograph within a hospital came in the summer of 2008 as an inpatient on a three-week Rheumatology rehabilitation programme. This gave me the perfect opportunity, and access, to fellow patients and staff. Here, portraits were my goal and all the women in my ward were delighted to pose for my project. The nurses were also happy to be photographed as long as no one saw that they had agreed, as it was probably not allowed. I only encountered problems from one group of doctors who, after crowding round me and discussing me like a piece of meat, were not keen on the idea. I didn’t have time to explain to them that the other patients had no problem with my camera before they walked off. In reality, the project was unsuccessful, but not due to the politics of the space – but my own ability to utilise the time I was in hospital to conduct the project. However, American artist, Lauren Greenfield was highly successful in her series, Thin, which captured the patients of eating disorder clinics across America.

As I continued to spend much of my time around hospitals, it seemed like an inevitable subject choice for my undergraduate final major project. I wanted to capture the calm, sterile environments and sense of impending doom that came with spending hours waiting in dark, badly decorated and depressing hospital waiting rooms. I presumed, as I only wanted to photograph empty public spaces, and maybe the occasional piece of equipment or empty bed, that gaining consent would be easy. I could not have been more wrong. No one I spoke to personally had a problem with me coming in to photography, but equally, no one I spoke to had the authority to grant me permission to do so. I was passed higher and higher up in the chain and back round again until I was dizzy. Where as before I had struggled with the fact that the space was too private to photograph in, now it seemed the fact that it was a public space that supposedly belongs to everyone meant that no one had, or knew who had, control over the space.

As my project looked destined to fail just weeks before my hand in, I did what any good photographer would do – I did it anyway! I nervously entered the hospital with an accomplice pushing my wheelchair so I could surreptitiously photograph and be hastily wheeled away at the first sign of trouble. But there was none. At one point an old porter even came up to me to discuss my choice of camera, wanting to know if it was one of those ‘new ones’. I don’t know if i just got lucky, just not passing anyone who cared or if the same catch twenty-two that stopped me from getting permission to photograph in hospital waiting rooms, also stopped anyone from being the one who had to tell me to stop.

In the end, what saved my project was the discovery that my University was about to open a brand new Simulation Suite designed for the first few weeks of nurse training. Here, I gained access to a hospital ward with no patients, no staff and as it was a privately owned space – a clearly designated contact to give me the keys.


Published on 13 September 2012
Submitted by Amy Oulton
Edited by Photoworks

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