Documentary Studies 104S - Medicine and the Vision of Documentary Photography

Voices of the Rainforest

When Duke Medical Center pediatrician John Moses '78 wanted to understand better the lives of the young parents he saw in his clinic, he turned to a tool he hadn't learned to use in medical school: his camera.

Long interested in photography, Moses had taken a class at Duke with documentary photographer Alex Harris and spent a year documenting the plight of migrant workers in the Southeast. In the late 1980s, he again picked up the camera, traveling around North Carolina to photograph teenage parents and their children in their homes. The photographs were compiled in an exhibition and a book titled The Youngest Parents, but their biggest impact may have been on Moses himself.

"As a doctor, I didn't feel like I had learned all I needed to know about that particular group of patients through my traditional medical education," he says. "For me, it was important to leave the clinic and use a camera to explore that issue."

In "Medicine and the Vision of Documentary Photography," Moses strives to pass along the same lesson. Students spend weekly lectures discussing the work of notable documentary photographers, but most of the time is devoted to taking and sharing their own photographs. A semester-long project requires each student to follow and document a particular subject related to medicine or public health. Past topics have included plastic surgery, sports medicine, and weight-loss clinics. Throughout the assignment, Moses encourages students to interact with the subjects they are photographing, which leads to better pictures—and a deeper understanding of the hopes, fears, and motivations of the people they are photographing.

While the course is open to all undergraduate students, it draws heavily from premed majors—which is fine with Moses. "My secret—or not-so-secret— goal is to introduce photography as a way for my students to think about any number of medical situations," he says. "My long-term hope would be that they would hold onto the perspective that they might gain in my class as they forge ahead with their medical careers."

In that way, the course becomes a subtle invitation for future physicians to think about their interactions with patients—a concept that Moses says oftentimes is overshadowed by moretechnical topics that dominate medical school. His course serves to remind students that both patients and doctors are human and social creatures by nature.

"The social context in which any of us interface with our health-care system is very important," Moses says. "It's not just a matter of getting the right CAT scan, but of having the right conversation with a doctor."

But even students uninterested in the medical profession can benefit from Moses' course. One of the challenges for any student, he says, is overcoming a reluctance to approach people he or she wants to photograph, particularly when those people are ill or living in poverty. By the end of the semester, however, many students discover that a camera can provide an entry into their subjects' lives, offering a deep appreciation of what the world looks like through their eyes.

John Moses, a professor of pediatrics at the Duke Medical Center, has been exploring the intersection of medicine and photography for more than twenty years. His portraits of patients have appeared in several exhibitions and books. He also teaches the course "Children and the Experience of Illness" for the Center for Documentary Studies.


House Calls With William Carlos Williams, M.D. by Robert Coles and Thomas Roma; The Doctor Stories by William Carlos Williams and Robert Coles; A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing by Reynolds Price '55; Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer '82, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder; My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese; The Youngest Parents by Robert Coles, Jocelyn Lee, and John Moses; Big Doctoring in America: Profiles in Primary Care by Fitzhugh Mullan and John Moses.

Five to ten photos due every other week for evaluation and discussion; final essay accompanies semester-long photo documentary project.

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