In 2017, I worked on a photo project very important to me : a documentary about a violonist who plays music in pediatric intensive care hospital departement.
This blogpost won’t show you that much photos of this project, that’s a choice, and I’ll explain later on this post, and instead, I’m going to tell you the story of this project, a beautiful story. 🙂
If you want to see the photos, you have 2 options :
- a permanent photo exhibition is held in the aisle of the Neonat’ /Kangourou / réanimation pédiatrique of CHU Estaing de Clermont-Ferrand
- another itinerant exhibition exists, and will be shown here and there in France, with conferences and meetings in order to show you and tell you all about this project. Follow my Facebook and Instagram, or Virginie Basset to learn more about the next dates of these events. 🙂
Life brought Virginie Basset in my life in 2016, she is a professional violonist, and was searching for a pro photographer to document her visits at the hospital in Clermont-Ferrand (central France). She wanted to keep a record of these 4 years spent playing music to people, but also to have something (photos) to help here to talk about this, developp other projects but also find financial support for the future project.
You don’t know everything here, but I had in the past, the will to work on such a project. When I was living in Paris, years ago, I tried to contact several associations (clowns at hospital), but I wasn’t a pro photographer at that time, and quickly felt dissuaded by the amount of administrative task and authorizations such a project would require.
To be honest, most of all, I wanted to SEE what could bring an artist in a hospital. I deeply believe in such actions and causes, in how good art can be in general, but also that there is nothing futile, only priorities that are more important than others, but “futile” can benefit still (that’s actually why I’m such a yarnbombing addict too) 🙂
Since then, I became a professional photographer, started to specialise in wedding photography, and increased my love for documentary. Besides that, and because some projects matters most than others, I did several photo project, more personal, on the blog : Volunteering for the elderly on Xmas day andmore recently, something about llamatherapy, to help people feel better… with llamas !
I also grew up in hospitals, my father had a career there, and my health problem when younger brought me in hospital often… So as you guessed now, when Virginie contacted me, I was so overwhelmed by this project, that I had many sleepless night until the day I finally get to meet her.
Later on, Virginie will mention me that she didn’t know about all this before contacting me. Only my wedding photoraphy convinced her I was the one she needed for the job… life is great, right ? 🙂
Our first meeting was awesome ! It was great to learn to know each other and our project, with another artist, we also understood quickly that we could get along pretty well together, having so much in common but also still quite different. And another important detail : she was looking for a profesional photographer, not a volunteer. 🙂
Expertise, the knowledge of all the aspects of my job, the liability, commitment, but also credibility for her other interlocutors, all these things were important to her and it’s great to hear so. I was so willing to work on such a project that I could have done it volunteering, but indeed, from a certain amount of time spent on a project, and commimtement to your work, it is important to compromise, and find a solution that makes everybody happy, especially on the long term since this project was, and still is, on process 🙂
The final goal was to deliver her between 25 and 30 photos, in order to create a photo exhibition in the hospital.
The more we worked on this project, the more obvious to us it was that we will need a 2nd set of prints for “us”, in order to share it with the rest of the world, as an itinerant exhibition.
The idea was that I go with Virginie for 5 hospital visit on Monday afternoon, to take photos, once we were ready and had set up our work procedure.
After several months working on this and how to organise, I did a pre-visit with her in December 2016, to see how we felt about it in real and if we didn’t forget something.
And that’s where I tell you about :
LIMITS AND CONSEQUENCES
*** AUTHORISATIONS ! ***
One of the first things I told Virginie when I met her : it’s going to be tough to have image release authorisation !
(WARNING ! red alert, with sparkling things all around it ! )
Under age subject, sick, with weak parents, fragiles, and destabilised due to their kid’s sickness… This was our biggest concern for the 8 months we’ve been working on this matter, before Virginie and I did the pre-visit.
As much as I know this matter, it’s always a tough thing to bring in the conversation. How to bring this, how to proceed, at what time (before or after she starts playing music ?) A document too long or too short could lead to a refusal. How to explain to parents why I’m here, when a violonist is somethings for some people, not supposed to be here in the first place ?
In the end, I was just an outsider, who was there with another outsider.
But also, my camera is huge, black, we only see it and it’s scary….
And photos, what for ? What will you do with them ? For who ? Where will you share them ?
I WAS SCARED !
—- so here, now you may understand why I won’t share photos of this project here, even if we have all the authorization and image released for them, by extreme cautiousness, I don’t want to share these photos on the internet. They remain Virginie’s communication tool anyway, not mine.
I could, but I don’t want to, this is not a goal for me, and believe me, I had to think about it many times. My ego went for a pause, deciding I will not become a superstar photographer with this project (and it’s fine with me) 🙂
Also, Out of Cautiousness, reserve, but also ethics and respects, I will not mention details of disease, names, or some situations we had to face when visiting people… it’s tempting to do so when telling about this project, but NO.
I recently had a massive tantrum with an exhibition organiser, who asked us some files of the photos to “print for their programm”, or to have “people bring a souvenir home”. We do have a main presentation photo that is used for this. That’s it.
Of course, we cannot prevent organisers who don’t read our rules, to copy and paste. And I’ve learnt to keep cool about it because of course, even if you spend a massive amount of time working with strict ethic rules, there will always be someone who doesn’t give a shit about it, to mess up your work. (but also, as I’ve been mentioned many times : stupid people taking photos with their cell phone while at the exhibition, and sharing it on Facebook).
Yes, stupid people, I’ve said it.
We’ll need to get used to it and learn how to keep cool : this remains a photo project to promote Virginie’s cause and awesome work, as a violonist, in hospitals. But I do not wish to be responsible for having it shared on the internet. Actually it’s also because I feel this requires so much more than just a photo being seen, we need to talk about this project, share it, explain, and give details. But also, you need to listen to Virginie’s music, instead of a shitty photo from your neighbour who saw the photo exhibition. 🙂
In the end, and surprisingly, the toughest part of this project wasn’t to have parent’s released signed. I was easier than we thought. I think Virginie and I have worked so much on this topic that’s why it went so easily and naturally.
But the Nursing staff was the toughest part. I can even talk about a FAILURE for this project, and a big disappointment. None of us thought we could face such hostility for having me in the service, but well, TOO BAD for them then. 🙁
I understood how tough their work conditions are in public hospital in France : pressure, overwork, very precise work with newborns, turn-over… I also acknowledge that even announcing on a poster, weeks before my visits with Virginie, didn’t help at all.
It has been really frustrating to hear nurse not allowing me to take photos when they were around, sometimes with reasons such as “my brushing is bad, my nails”, “don’t look nice”, or “I look bad today”. You have the right indeed, but my mission wasn’t there,but to enhance Virginie’s work, and also their own work. I would have loved to show how great their work is. Too bad I wasn’t allowed to do so.
Between the moment when I take a photo and having it on a photo exhibition, there are plenty of steps, but also choices to be made, to click or not on my camera, and work before and after that, but also : a profesionnal work. Too bad !
On a photo exhibition with about 20 photos, we only had 2 or 3 photos with Nurses, or actually “piece of a personn who is a nurse”, because sometimes I frame tightly but still need a released to be signed just in case. I don’t pick that photo but a wider one.
So let me tell you that when we had a nurse allowing me to take photos, I had quite the pressure to take good photos, and hoping interesting things will happen.
Dreaming to be a famous photo reporter in hospital, let me tell you that this dream was aborted quite fast by the non welcoming nurse of the hospital.
Thankfully, not everyone was refusing, THANK YOU to those who allowed me to be there with them, with my camera. I hope this photo exhibition reminds you how lucky you are to do such a job.
*** TRYING NO TO DO MATERNITY SHOTS ***
no… please no. The idea was to document things. Not to pose people. NEVER.
I adapt to my envirronement, and believe me that was a challenge (see next chapter), and I stay in the background, where there is one in such a small space.
I try at least, and let people live just the way they are. As mentionned above : I am an outsider, who stays with someone that is not expected in a hospital room. A bit of reserve never kileed anyone.
I am not there to make pretty photos no matter what, but to show what I see in Virginie’s work… that’s different.
I am not there to make parents happy, but to make Virginie happy by documenting her musical visits, and show that in all its various aspects. Challenge tough and tougher as we went to the next visits, since I would miss some photos I wanted to take on my list, and would need to focus on that aspect for the session of my visit. (tight framing, mood, parents, nurse, or all aspects…)
I am not there to sell photos, I am there for Virginie’s need. Of course, we gave free prints to parents when we found we had some pretty photos they might enjoy, but these photos weren’t all the times the one we selected for our project.
*** DISEASE and other stories ***
I’ve never been told what the kids had, Virginie either. A way for us to protect ourselves, but also, because it’s not our job, nor our mission. I would be scared to be under the influence. “she’s ok”, “it’s bit complicated for them now”, or “I think he will enjoy it”, told by the nurses were enough for us.
I’ve also tried not to say “bye, thanks and see you soon”, when leaving a room. As great as the moment was with them, sweet and magic, when you open the door and find your politeness activated, you realise it’s not appropriate in such an environment.
*** LIGHT (and space) ***
ah ah ah…. light !
I did my pre-visit in December and quickly understood we should wait for March to be back for real visits. Light and short daylight made things complicated.
Respecting the babies’s rythm (and parents), but also my light requirement.
Of course, no flash, no light pole, nothing. Just me and my camera and natural light. A lense (24/70mm), and a hospital room, very small, full of family members… and a baby so tiny that most of the time you couldn’t see where he was when entering the room.
We actually don’t see the baby on some photos, but we know he’s there, VERY there. Tiny but there. 🙂
I needed to transcript this in photos.
Space and big machines, very big machines. In very intimate times (and not particularly happy ones), when all the attention was focused on the potential reaction of the baby, when Virginie was playing music, you could hear someone messing her feet in the cables of the machine and fall on the floor ?
Nope, it didn’t happen, but I could have fallen. Learn not to moove, to limit my presence disturbing the moment, but still be there at the right angle, at the right place, to absorb what happened. In a very small space, with plenty of “giant adults”, and a very tiny newborn or premature. Quite a precise work.
CHALLENGE ACCEPTED !
*** MUSIC and me ***
yes, I had to sing… (oh dammit !) 🙂
Entering an hospital room with a musician means that if you want to melt in the mood and be as discreet and not seen as possible, you have to copy and sing.
Where a violin can be welcomed with a smile in a sick people room (it cannot hurt), the camera is not. Especially when it’s about a kid. So to melt in the mood and be forgotten requires not to stand there and watch people… I had to participate and contribute to the mood. 🙂
Virginie plays a various amount of lullabys from all over the world, in many languages and from different cultures. It was delighful for my ears, to be taken back in my oldest and sweetest memories. But to start singing in front of anonymous, that was complicated for me. And that’s probably what the parents thought too when she played music, so I’ve played the game and contributed to a shared moments, in order to avoid being an observer, but to share togeter instead.
In terms of photos, how to let people guess that there is music in the room on the 30 photos, without having all the time a violin in the photo ? That was my challenge : to create a collection of photos with a general coherence and message.
*** TAKING PHOTOS ***
Who says music, says rythmn… and my camera makes noise when pushing the shutter release.
This photo project has been to the opposite of my wedding photography habits :
- Click in rythmn with Virginie’s singing or music, in order to avoid disturbing the moment and have people reminded that I’m here (no no I’m not here !) 🙂
- I also quickly understood that I needed to shoot a lot less, by respect, in order to not disturb, but also by reserve, prudishness. Be really focused on the moment and only catch it when it’s right, not “just in case”. When at a wedding I take about 2500 photos for 16hours of coverage, on an afternoon with Virginie, I barely took betweek 15 and 30 photos.
- Whereas at a wedding, people really can’t wait to have me there, and at 2pm, I feel close and laugh with friends and Close circle of the family, this time, I ended up in a very different situation : jump into sadness, distress, worries and difficult family situation and I had to bring all my kindness and gratefulness to take photos of a muscian, and oh, you too mister an misses and your baby too if you allow me to do so of course. VERY DIFFERENT, and not easy. At all !
- But that’s what made the job so interesting and awesome actually.
- Try not to disturb Virginie when she was playing music, when I stepped and bow over her shoulder to take photos of the tiny baby she was close to.. trying not to fall on the baby and its mother when doing so, and of course trying to avoid falling or bump into the machines.
- Reserve, lots of reserve. I believe that, just like for wedding photography, and despite the very different situation, I’ve been lucky to be able to share these moments with these people that I didn’t know and allowed me to do so. The reserve of the photographer, it’s being able to take a photo at the right time, without disturbing or being annoying, and respecting each other’s intimatcy but also : respecting the moment.
*** DEALING WITH MY OWN EMOTIONS ***
Once again, we cannot say that the mood was the same as when taking photos of a wedding.
Tiredness, worries, fight with your spouse, sickness, disapointment to learn that the baby will have to stay a bit longer in the hospital, and then he lost weight, or there are too many beeps on these machines, or simply the way each parents (and kid) live these moments… all these parameters did that entering an hospital room with a big smile and you dose of kindness was not always enough.
Of course, you get soaked up, and that’s actually why I do this job.
Unlike Virginie, who learnt how to put distance and protect herself to be able to keep doing this job, I, am an emotional sponge. That’s why I do this job and that’s how I want to do it.
Kindness protected me, but gratitude too. I am grateful of the possibilty I’ve been given, to document this. To be able to testify, through my photos, but also this blogpost, of what I’ve seen, and felt.
I’ve cried, but not all the times of sadness, thankfully. I’ve decided from the beginning (and I think that’s also how Virginie bring things), to put my internal kindness vibrator mode ON, power 12 000, and I took my camera with me.
Virginie often says the plays music not to the sick kid, but to the part of the kid who is ok. The sick kid is too busy to fight against disease and we don’t want to disturb him in this task. But we actually want to cheer and help the healthy part of the kid to even feel better and find more energy to keep feeling well.
I often say “no matter what happens as long as the photo looks good”. But in this situation it was a bit more difficult, but I’m lucky enough to be able to hide my shiny by tears eyes with my camera.
Being too emotional could worry the parents, or annoy them too. This project taught me to have more reserve, I use that word again you see. 🙂
I often say that we are responsible for the energy we bring in the room. Far from me the idea to get in the room with a “oh waouwwww but what’s all these cables on this big machine… and your kid is so little and tiny, that sucks… oh and you seem so tired and in lack of sleep ?)”
This would be from a volunteer tourist photographer. Not my case.
And I am not impressed by medical and hospital anyway, I grew up there.
But what’s interesting actually, since this photo exhibition, is that sometimes there is a difference between how I feel about a photo, and how people look at it.
Whereas for some photos, I can see the power of a couple who loves each other very much, people will see the kid in front, with cables plugged everywhere…. Watching some kid’s expressions on photos bring them to comments such as “ohhhhh” “so cuttteeee”, and that was interesting because for me, on some photos, I couldn’t get rid of the thought of the suffering, the beeps of the machine or the worrying parents.
I’m glad I was able to take away some sad feeling and enhanced how sweet and magic was in the air when the violin came in the hospital… but then, you may wonder :
HOW WAS IT, “VIOLIN At the HOSPITAL” ?
Magic, intense, awesome !
I’ve you read that far, CONGRATS ! It’s time for me to tell you what I’ve seen, and learnt during this fantastic project, because you may not have the chance to listen to Virginie’s music or listen to her version of the story at one of our conference. I hope you’ll get the chance to listen to her music though 🙂
I’ve started this project, like said before, hoping I will create an amazing documentary about the life in a hospital when a violonist arrives and plays music. I quickly get caught by reality, to focus on a more accurate work, a more intimate vision, inside the rooms, with families.
Besides building a strong friendship with Virginie, when working on this project (8 months before my first visit), I also discovered, during our session, a huge amount of work as a musician.
A collaboration with nurses (which room should she visit, at what time, and checking the situation before and after each visits), a work that took times to be accurate, through the years. But also a huge amount of research work, to learn lullabies from other culture, train herself with the language, the songs, the music and improve more and more.
Sharing, but not only with the baby, turns out that her action goes above this. Her music heals the parents, help them to calm down, creates pause in time, allows babies to calm down, or to wake up happily, and find the rythmn that fits them to suck their mother’s breast. A very tired or stressed mother. A song based on breathing helps everybody in the room to calm down, when an irish song can stimulate people and brin joy all around.
From a week to another, we met and saw again some babies, and some of them had a better health, and parents welcomed us with teary eyes, after spending the week singing Virginie’s song to their kids. She also helps a lot to raise awareness among parent, with the importance of music.
Music creates links, between parents and their kids, between our origins, and who we are, and allows us to share, and give. Virginie’s talent is to go and dig this in some cultures to freshen up musical memories in multicultural families. and that, babies have the skills to understand this. “babies’s skills”, is a term that Virginie uses a lot).
Music helps to developp a bond between siblings. Lullabies are taught when you’re a kid, and are important way to share something with the newborn. the older kid is worried by the situation, and the arrival of this newcomer, who actually worries everybody and lives at the hospital right now. Lullabies help everybody to bond together.
At the hospital, music also brings a moment of sweetness, ease, calm, when a medical act has to be done. Changing the mind volontarly or not, to a kid while he’s been taking care of, or maybe the real purpose was to calm the Nurse while she was doing it ? 🙂
Bonding people with music, and have mothers being reminded of their own childhood at a time when they have to learn how to become a mother, but in a hospital, surrounded by stress, disease, and the beeps of the machines.
I’ve also seen couples who loves each other very very much, soooooo much (I’m not a wedding photographer for nothing, right ? 🙂 ) In difficult times of worries, music helped everybody to feel more peaceful, and sometimes by crying a little too.
And then, babies ! I knew babies, but couldn’t imagine that such a little tiny being could express his interest for music, without even having eyebrows to raise, or a words to talk.
I witnessed, thanks to this documentary, beautiful moment of life, excetional moments of sharing, healing in music, and so many other expressions that made each note a precious delight !
I will never thanks enough Virginie and the families, for trusting me and allowing me to be there with them during this documentary. 🙂