In Surgery

Facing the Challenge of OR Photography



View the OR photography of Robert Boston using this embedded player, or choose from the options below for larger, higher quality versions. (Photos by Robert Boston. Music by Eric Patton/Robert Boston.)
Having just come aboard as staff photographer for Washington University School of Medicine in the Public Affairs office in 1996, I was elated but, to be honest, a bit scared when handed my first assignment to photograph in the operating room.

Elated because I had long wanted to photograph surgery, a desire that began in college after viewing the fantastic black-and-white photographs of war surgery taken by photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Scared due to the fear of entering the place where lifesaving surgeons perform miracles.

On the day of the shoot I asked myself the question one often asks when facing a new and intimidating situation: 'What is the worst thing that could happen?' The worst-case scenario my brain came up with was not very assuring or calming. I decided to just go on autopilot, yet stay very alert.

In the locker room I wrestled awkwardly trying to put on my shoe covers, face mask, cap and scrubs, the articles of clothing that convert you from a civilian to a person with access into the OR.

I entered the operating room where a thoracic surgery was already taking place. I did not know where I could stand, what I could touch, or how I should breathe until the head nurse was kind enough to explain some rules. It was obvious to me that it was obvious to everyone else in the room that it was my first time. At one point, while I was staring into my camera bag to find a different lens, a resident asked if I was okay.

I was able to block out the blood and focus on my job, even though it was impossible to ignore the smell of burning flesh from cauterization. The experience was still enjoyable, and I managed to capture an image of big lights overhead with a surgeon bent over a glowing cavity, a shot seen many times before. I was good with that. No worst-case scenario, and I would no longer be a first-timer.

The more times I photographed in the operating hallways and rooms the more comfortable I became with the environment and the people who work there. With familiarity, I developed a better vision as a photographer. I began to notice details, colors, reflections, light, dark and a wider view of the whole room or picture.

After more than 10 years' experience, I've come to believe that few places are as interesting and significant as the OR. These images, which show the art and beauty of surgery, offer a glimpse into what it's like to gain entry into that special world.