What does it take to photograph a working hospital?

CR speaks to three photographers who’ve held residencies at UK hospitals to understand the qualities needed to capture such an emotionally-charged space

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story of Philip Montgomery’s photo essay, which documented the doctors, nurses and staff members in New York’s public hospital system. The series is raw and powerful, and highlighted the very real struggle that healthcare workers are facing every day during the pandemic. 

Across the Atlantic, in the UK, few photographers and camera crews have been physically allowed into hospitals during the crisis. It is simply for safety reasons, but either way, it made us think about what’s needed from a photographer when documenting the goings on at a hospital, pandemic or not. To find out, CR spoke to three photographers who have each held residencies at a handful of hospitals across the UK. Here they talk to us about the work created at the time, the lessons they learnt and how vital it is that we preserve the NHS.

Radcliffe Infirmary by Wendy Aldiss

In the early 90s, photographer Wendy Aldiss approached the Radcliffe Infirmary Hospital in Oxford for an artist’s residency. Based in the centre of Oxford, it had long been an important part of the city. “A new hospital opened two miles away in 1972, and was gradually taking away the areas of care,” she explains. “Everyone knew it was only a few years until it would be closed.” Aldiss wanted a way of documenting the hospital she was born in. 

“I was extremely fortunate to get a small grant from the Infirmary and from the Arts Council but I still had to work part-time so I was not in the Infirmary every day,” says Aldiss of the residency. “I also had a new baby at the time so a certain level of juggling with my time was involved.” 

From 1993 to 1995, Aldiss captured the hospital’s daily workings. Her intentions remained steady throughout that time. “Having researched the local archives I had found that there were few images of the care given and work done within the Infirmary, and far more of each new wing that had been built,” she says. “My interest is people and so I wanted to capture the human elements rather than the material fabric of the Infirmary. That did not change.”