The surgical mask channeled each breath up and under my glasses, steaming the rims with each exhalation. The surgeon stepped back as I leaned forward, over the drapes, careful to keep my gown from touching the table. A bright light shone over the small rectangle, pulled back with several metal forceps.
I extended the camera out over the patient and just above my own eyelevel, shifting slightly to remove any shadow from the frame. Click, click. I pulled back the camera, scrolled through the photos, checking for focus. The surgeon pushed back in, taking and replacing tools next to the saw and piece of skull already on the tray.
When he pulled back to review the MRI capture hanging on the wall I slipped forward again. Click, click. Checking the focus again. The brain was clear and the edges of the hole were sharp. Nobody beside myself would see these photos but I needed the practice, plus it was an amazing opportunity.
Very few of us will ever photograph a living dog’s brain while at work. So why am I writing about such a rare occurrence? Because it holds several lessons, the first of which is to never pass up an opportunity to learn.
Everything Has a Purpose
The 30 minutes I spent dressing for surgery, watching the surgeon saw open the dog’s skull, and photographing the resulting hole is not why I was standing in that surgical suite. I was there because I was looking for a story. It’s true that these photos were deemed too gory to share with our audience. I made the decision not to share them among our donors or send them to the press. How would they ever help a nonprofit gain more support? There wasn’t a story there.
I did put myself in that room though. I wanted to see the surgery firsthand, practice my photography, and chat with the surgeon. He’d been taking on increasingly aggressive procedures and if I was going to be there when a story was needed, then I needed to build a repertoire with him.
It was a teaching hospital so chatting with me was never a distraction. He had The Grateful Dead playing in the background as he placed orders for more tools with his assistants. We were getting along and that was exactly what I needed.
I needed to practice my photography as well. I’d been capturing close-ups of surgeons’ hands for the past few weeks, working on detailed focus as the trained fingers swooped and arced as sutures were tied. Lighting was crucial in surgery and I made adjustments between shots, working now so that when an emergency came in instinct would take over, switching to the best settings without much thought.
Get Out of the Office
I had a great office. I had a sink, closet, mini-fridge, teapot, wrap around desk, and enough room for visitors. Best of all, I had a door. People make the mistake of thinking a door’s purpose is separation when it’s really connection. The most powerful use of a door is to always keep it open.
That said, my door was closed about half of the day because I wasn’t in my office, I was walking and talking, like some reproduction of “The West Wing” without the perfection of Sorkenese.
The more I was out of the office the less I depended on people to come to me. Each minute that I spent poking around meant that I spent about half of the time in front of my computer writing up press releases, speeches, or forcing the creation of poor ideas to pitch to my colleagues. When you’re surrounded by news, and at work you really are if you just tune in to the right channel, you can draft everything in your head as you walk and quickly pour out a near-finished copy in record time when you sit down.
Get Your Hands and Your Brain Dirty
I’ve helped intubate animals, shaved bellies for sterilization procedures, assisted in necropsies, and herded feral cats. It’s easier than you think to use your hands; that’s why they invented soap. The hardest part is making sure that you experience the world you don’t know so that you can tell the best story possible.
The more you put yourself in the middle of things the harder it will be to look away. You need to keep moving, keep observing, and take notes. Some things you will be able to share and other moments will be only for you and the people in the room. After awhile photographing a dog’s brain won’t seem that strange.