Emily Gilhespy’s love for photography was borne out of a desire to immortalise the moments she experienced while travelling. She bought her first FUJIFILM camera to document a backpacking trip through Nepal and hasn’t looked back. Since then, she has developed a passion for portrait photography; her compelling work seeking to preserve “those authentic moments when a person drops their gaze, leaving a facial expression that is governed simply by their thoughts and feelings”. By combining her skills in portraiture with a love of documentary photography, Emily’s goal is to use her art to deliver stories in authentic and accessible ways.
**Sensitivity warning: this article includes images of patients being treated for COVID-19**
As we approach the 1-year anniversary of the first lockdown, Intensive care nurse, Emily Gilhespy, invites you to discover the person behind the PPE with her recent photo series documenting the pressures of the pandemic on frontline workers
When the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the UK, intensive care nurse and photographer, Emily Gilhespy, found herself well and truly on the frontline, defending the population from this devastating disease. As the crisis developed and she saw first-hand the effect it was having on her colleagues and friends, Emily felt a responsibility to use the power of photography to both document and educate.
Bringing colour to the reality of healthcare workers fighting COVID on the frontline, she began taking her FUJIFILM X-T3, XF23mmF2 R WR and XF56mmF1.2 R into work, making images of her colleagues and surroundings during break-times.
“I felt like we were living a moment in time that is going to be looked back on and scrutinised heavily in the future, and I wanted to show the weight that healthcare workers are lifting. I’ve always admired that power of photography; transmitting stories in a way that is both warm and true. And I felt that documenting the pandemic from the perspective of an intensive care nurse wouldn’t be a censored narrative, it would be something that resonated.”
By offering this window into her world, she also wanted to bridge the gap between public perception and the experiences of healthcare workers. “I think we’ve normalised the situation so much. For instance, PPE has now become something almost synonymous with healthcare work, but that’s not normal. That’s not my normal job. And I wanted to emphasise the fact that there has to be a person behind that PPE, negotiating their own personal struggles and challenges in this pandemic while undergoing a complete transformation of their work environment.
“You know, ICU [intensive care unit] is not the way it used to be. It’s incredibly challenging at the moment. And with this project – particularly the portraits – I wanted to unveil the people behind that.”
Emily’s photographic journey began with a simple desire to remember experiences, but she soon began to realise the power this art form has to tell stories.
“At first, photography came hand-in-hand with travelling – I used it as a medium to capture memories,” says Emily. “Then, as I evolved as a photographer, I not only realised how incredible a creative process it can be, but also found that it started to change the way I experienced things, viewed events and processed those experiences.
“I just love the way you are able to capture moments in the most unique and creative ways, then carry your interpretation of those moments into the future in a way that other mediums cannot.”
Because Emily was trying to squeeze her photography into limited break-times, this project was very much about making the most of what she had. That meant jumping into briefly empty rooms whenever she had the chance, with a bare minimum of gear, and improvising when it came to lighting. “With the portraits, during breaks I would ask a colleague to go into one of the empty incubation rooms that are only used temporarily. I had to rely on natural light from the window, because the artificial light in the cubicle was too harsh,” she reveals. “I actually used a metal tray as a reflector to balance out the light,” she chuckles.
This pared-down approach added a certain level of authenticity to the images. When combined with Emily’s connection to each subject on a personal level, this makes them additionally compelling. “I’d ask the subject to reflect on their day or look at the camera when they felt comfortable. Because they knew me, and have worked with me for years, I felt that their facial expressions were natural and true to what they were feeling.”
With such powerful images, Emily’s overarching goal is to convey a true representation of the seriousness of Covid-19. But it’s not just physical effects on patients that she wants to highlight – but also how significantly the pandemic is impacting the mental health of those on the frontline.
“I think, unless you work in this environment, it’s very difficult to get a true grasp of it, to really understand what it actually entails. And I wanted to emphasise that this is not somewhere anybody wants to be. This is not somewhere that anyone wants their loved ones to be. Covid-19 is serious – this is real. People are losing their lives, including young people,” she explains.
“I also wanted people to see the impact that it was having on healthcare staff,” she continues. “The positivity that my team are still able to show is something remarkable, which is why I focused a lot on the portraits. It’s made me realise how fortunate I am to work alongside the most incredible people.
“But, ultimately, we’re not going to leave this situation unscathed. We need to support healthcare workers in the future. This has been an incredibly intensive and challenging year, without much of a reprieve at all.”
Emily goes on to talk about how photography has helped her during the pandemic, acting as a sort of therapy during these dark days. “Ordinarily, our outside lives are processing mechanisms that help dilute the intensity of our job. But, during lockdown, we’ve been stripped of that,” she explains.
“The pandemic has increased the intensity of my work, and I’ve found that photography has really aided the way I process this experience. It helped me reframe certain experiences or things that I saw, while allowing me to look at them in different ways.”
So, what’s next for Emily? Aside from expanding this current project to include other frontline disciplines working to fight the pandemic, she is also planning to explore the aftermath and long-term effects it has on society.
“I’d quite like my next projects to document the steady transition of society back into normality,” Emily reveals. “Human beings are so amazing at adapting – we’ve almost normalised aspects of social distancing, for example. But what’s society going to look like when we undo that adaptation? When we open ourselves back up to life as it was, at the conclusion of a year that has been incredibly painful and difficult?”
Stay up to date with Emily’s remarkable work here.
To find out more about March 23rd’s National Day of Reflection, visit Marie Curie’s page here.
To see more of our recent initiatives and schemes that we’ve been working on here at Fujifilm to support the NHS, click here.