Documenting NHS workers on the frontline of the pandemic

As the UK enters the third act of the coronavirus crisis, photographer Slater King reflects on what it was like to be at the forefront of the pandemic last year, when he began shooting portraits of NHS staff at London’s Whittington Hospital

From daily death tolls to data visualisations, statistics have been at the heart of our evolving understanding of coronavirus over the past year. One of the most shocking figures to emerge recently is that NHS staff suffered more casualties in the first six months of the pandemic than the British armed forces did during 12 years of war in Afghanistan, and six years of war in Iraq, combined.

Unsurprisingly, warlike rhetoric has become increasingly commonplace in reports of the fight against the pandemic, with hospitals often being described as ‘battlefields’ and healthcare workers as being on the ‘frontline’. Last year, photographer Slater King experienced the reality of NHS workers first hand when he was granted access to Whittington Hospital in North London during the UK’s first national lockdown. The result is a powerful portrait series that tells the stories of the people behind the PPE.

As the project gets a new lease of life in book form, with all royalties being donated to the Whittington Hospital’s charity fund, King tells CR what he’s learned about putting yourself in danger as a photographer, and the importance of recording moments of history like these.

Top: Champa Jetha; above: Ryan McGivern. All photos © Slater King

Creative Review: Why did you decide to start the photo project, and had you ever shot in an environment like a hospital before?
Slater King: I noticed that there was hardly anything coming out of hospitals in the UK, and so I made it my mission to get inside, and find out what it was like for the people who were working there. I really wanted to create a record – while there was still a chance – of who was there, what it was like for them and how they felt about it all.

I’ve photographed some strange and wonderful places before, such as nuclear power stations, boardrooms, prisons and even on occasion riots, but this was very different because there was an overwhelming and constant tension in the air. It was like everyone in the hospital was walking on thin ice, not knowing if it would break at any minute.

Mihir Sanghvi

CR: How did it feel going into Whittington on the first day? Were you worried about putting yourself in danger?
SK: I was very nervous walking into the hospital for the first time. This was during [the first] lockdown, and so it was surreal just getting there, navigating the empty streets. Then because there were no visitors and very few people in the corridors and communal spaces, everything had an eerie and almost abandoned feel.

As there was no testing at the time, and people weren’t quite sure how easily – or even how – it spread, I felt an enormous need to get it all right. I remember thinking, I’ll be so pissed off if I end up dead without even getting the shot! That thought helped me a lot because it allowed me to tune out from the obvious thoughts of whether I should be in a small room with a Covid-positive patient, shooting an unpaid project of uncertain worth, just because it seemed morally the right thing for me, as a photographer, to do.

Danya Chandrakumar

CR: What was your approach to capturing what was going on around you?
SK: It was an unusual shoot because there was no client; the hospital had given me a free hand in terms of where I could go, who I could speak to, and how long I was there. I decided on two key navigation points: everything for each person would be bespoke, and everything would be lit. Thinking back, that seems quite ridiculous in terms of ambition, but I am a fan of hard work! The knock on effects were obvious, and visible just watching me and my assistant trying to get through a set of doors – with all the bags, trolleys, cases and equipment we were lugging, it was a mission in itself just to go from one place to another!

Because we weren’t being chaperoned, I had to approach people who usually didn’t know we were coming at an incredibly stressful and painful time for them, and ask them about the life and death situations surrounding and including them, their patients and their families. Hard as it was, I needed to do it that way, because the core of the project was capturing this incredible moment and what it was like for those who were there and at the very heart of it.

Joy Jackson

CR: Why was it important for you to include individual stories alongside the portraits?
SK: Talking to people felt important to me because the image does something the words can’t, and vice versa. When I saw how the images and texts intertwined and worked with each other, I was convinced that the story needed both parts. For example, when you read Joy’s description of “people just dying, dying, dying in my ward” you can also see her, her location, her demeanour and something of the person she is, so you get a much fuller appreciation of what she faced and how it was for her.

Another example would be Lizzie, [a physiotherapist] who was seconded in to the ITU. Her portrait shows a kind and sensitive person, and so you can appreciate to a much greater degree the impact the situation had on her when she says, “I could still hear all the beeping and the alarms in my ears when I got home. I’d sit in a dark quiet room and could hear all the alarms going off in my mind.”

Tola Badejo

CR: You made a point of mentioning that NHS staff suffered more casualties in the first six months of the pandemic than the British Army in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Did it feel like you were on a battlefront?
SK: Some of the people I photographed told me that it was like being on a battlefront. Cleveland, for example, said it was like “being at the front of a war”. But then other people saw the war analogy as troubling. Renate said she was bothered by the “war rhetoric”. She told me “we’re not volunteers who have signed up to march into battle, we’re people who’ve been trained, and who do a job that we’re paid for, that we enjoy doing”.

I’ve photographed the British Army during combat simulations which, because I was covering the medical teams, was all rather realistic and gnarly, but it seemed to me to be dissimilar to what I saw in the hospital, because the former was so percussive and the latter was so tight and subsurface. Though I think these two situations certainly share an incredible amount of jeopardy and uncertainty. It’s hard to over-exaggerate what some of these people went through.

Thomas Kostakos

CR: The images feel particularly pertinent in light of the second wave and new strain in the UK. Looking back at the series, how do you think you’ve processed the experience?
SK: I’ve been in touch with many people in the book since new year and they’re back to where they were during the terrible times of the first wave. I felt a responsibility to go back in, to be there with them, and so I reached out to the hospital but they’re too stretched to their limits to have anyone non-medical there. They were worried that even having someone simply in the same room might be too much for some staff and, I hate to say it, but I’m a bit relieved that I won’t be going back in, for now.

It was for many reasons probably the hardest shoot that I’ve ever done, and I’m so proud of the book and the way that the project has impacted on the hospital and the staff. The texts that I’ve produced are being used by the psychology department as a way to talk to the staff about their wellbeing, huge posters of people’s texts and images are around the hospital’s corridors and the stories have been a jumping off point for organisations like the Royal College of Nursing to enable the voices of the frontline NHS staff to be heard.

I look back at the experience with gratitude; what was at first just a desire to see our industry, the creatives of this world, play an important role in recording these times, has blossomed into something that has touched so many people. That, for me, is something that I’m very grateful for.

Cleveland Shaw

Find out more about Whittington Hospital In The Time of Covid at slater.photo

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes