After the first experimental penile transplant was successfully conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, photographer Sam Riley captured the happy patient in his room, giving a thumbs up. The image was published on websites and in newspapers everywhere. But for Riley, MGH’s longtime staff photographer, it was just one of hundreds of pictures he’s taken throughout the years at the renowned Boston hospital.
Riley has made a career of helping to carry on the hospital’s long tradition of clinical imaging – it dates back 170 years, when the first use of surgical anesthesia was captured on daguerreotypes. Today, a staff of four photographers continue to record medical breakthroughs, document surgical procedures, and take studio, educational, and marketing images. Riley, 45, who started at MGH two decades ago — “when Photoshop was still a noun and not a verb” – spoke with the Globe about the art and science of biomedical photography.
“I learned the hard way not to rely on a fixed camera lens in the operating room. I was photographing a kidney transplant – they were removing the existing kidneys and putting in donated organs. The kidneys they were removing were polycystic, and I didn’t understand what that meant. I grabbed one camera lens instead of my normal gear, and to my surprise, instead of being the size of a fist, the kidneys were very large, with numerous cysts. It was a challenge to capture them, and from that day forward, I always use a 24-70 mm lens that has a versatile focal length range.
“As hospital photographers, we are part of the continuum of care and often pay a key role in documenting clinical progress, helping to make a diagnosis, or assessing how treatment is progressing. You’ll find us everywhere but in the morgue and the maternity ward — babies have their own photography staff and we never take post-mortem images. We see a lot of procedures, but I am not squeamish; really, the toughest things to photograph are the pediatric cases, especially when the children are in pain.
“I remember the days when specimens were brought down from the labs in petri dishes, and we’d shoot gel showing DNA bands or cell stains in photo microscopy work. X-ray images also needed to be reproduced for publication or presentation, so I’d slap them on the light box and photograph them.
“Hours were spent in the pitch dark at the proton therapy lab, taking images of the monitor screens. Today, surgical lights, microscopes and other medical equipment have cameras built in them, so researchers can take their own photos. The dark room and film editing room are obsolete now and we have our own computer imaging stations. Still, we continue to do clinical photos and that is where our technical skills come in. It can be close quarters in the OR, and it’s important not to get in the way of patient care. Infection control procedures include wearing scrubs and sterilizing the camera with isopropyl alcohol. There are a lot of bright lights around the draped body and a small, deep incision area that’s very dark. It’s a juggling act, compensating for different exposures and depth of fields, and there’s only one chance, with no retakes.
“I’m an enthusiastic photographer even when I’m not on the job, and do things a little more rough and tumble — using a digital range finder camera, waterproof point and shoot, and other equipment. I like to shoot scenery, and I’m a bit of a dog nut. One of my favorite recent photos was of my border terrier Phoebe after a grooming. She’s got a nice smooth head and long eye brows. It’s very cute.”