Returning balance to patients through landscape photography
The fog snaked in from my starboard side, growing ominously until it swallowed all visual reference. I was kayaking alone across a large expanse of open water to a remote island on Lake Superior. Loaded with supplies and camera gear, I was prepared for three days of camping and landscape photography.
I had one last sighting of the island about a mile away, before using my compass to plot the line I would take to paddle into the void. I knew if I didn't compensate for the waves, I would miss the island. The margin for error was slim. If I was off by even a little bit, I would miss the island and be adrift in open water with only an hour of daylight left-a nauseating proposition.
Focusing intently on my deck-mounted compass, I paddled along in ethereal quiet as the fog wrapped around me like a soft blanket. Before long, the sight of a faint shoreline snapped me from my growing anxiety. A dose of adrenaline must have fueled my paddling.
Despite a rosy forecast, a light rain grew to a steady downpour. I camped in the forest atop the island center, where rain kept me confined to my tent for two days.
My kayaking adventure had parallels to the experience of patients in a healthcare setting. Like a patient, I found myself in an unexpectedly dire situation, arrived at some temporary place of rest, and then was stuck there until things got better. Despite being surrounded by staff, patients must undergo much of their recovery alone, with feelings of uncertainty and discomfort. The best healthcare environments can stimulate recovery but, in the final analysis, we are alone with the forces of nature that do their best to heal us from the inside.
My solitary travels into wilderness provided me empathy for the mindset of the patients and families in healthcare environments. What would I want to look at? What would lift my spirits? What views would inspire a sense of communion with the outside world? Visualizing the patients' journey has been a guiding influence in my creative process.
“Healing is a journey. We wanted to create an art program that suggested a healing pathway. We used landscape images in waiting rooms where people need to escape and close-up nature shots in the patient rooms for a more intimate, nurturing effect. In addition, creating a beautiful hospital environment-from artwork to bringing in natural light-sends a message to our staff that you care more about them as employees,” says Robin Harrold, senior vice president, Shawnee Mission Medical Center, Shawnee Mission, Kansas.
Twenty years as a fine-art photographer will teach you a bit about what works and what doesn't. The following compositional elements are the foundations for creating images that people have affinity for.
Being sick, by definition, is a disruption of physiological equilibrium. As we sit alone in our hospital rooms, our bodies yearn to be back in balance. A balanced composition is similarly essential to an aesthetically successful nature image. When forms are not balanced across the composition, the image is uncomfortable to look at. Images of nature infer a harmony of the natural forces at work, re-establishing equilibrium in our bodies.
The sharp angles and box-like structure of a hospital room create a rigid framework that constrains patients' attention to the discomforts and static nature of their predicament. Compositional elements that guide the viewer from close foreground to far background are emblematic of the patient's journey towards wellness. Research has indicated that patients viewing landscape images with visual depth have decreased anxiety and suffer less intense pain.1
“Landscape compositions that convey distance cause the viewer to take a journey into the piece, which takes time and attention. Landscape art in waiting rooms can, therefore, lead to a shorter perceived waiting time, and lower stress,” says Caleb O. Fey, director, Healing Art Program, Truman Medical Center, Kansas City, Missouri.
The equilibrium in our lives is not static. Flowing lines are emblematic of life's vicissitudes. The path of the eye as it views an image is pleasing when it follows a circuitous and continuous pattern, much like the journey from health into sickness and back to health.
Often nature images deliver emotional responses in viewers by reminding them of a fond memory or happy time spent outdoors. These warm memories provide a positive distraction. Positivity opens the mind to a broader sense of possibilities.2 Images with luminous, back-lit foliage; sun-dappled landscapes; flowers; and gardens all connote a positive tone.
The subject matter needs to be identifiable and related to the patient's experience. It does not need to be from the local area, but should be emblematic of that region or of subject matter found anywhere, such as close-ups of flowers.
“You can build a functional hospital, but until you appoint it with art, it won't look finished or welcoming,” says Sheri Hawkins, vice president and chief nursing officer, Shawnee Mission Medical Center, Shawnee Mission.
I often find myself looking for landscapes with remarkable aesthetic components and that are graced with unusually dramatic light. Experiencing the rarity and grandeur of the moment can be incredibly joyful and fulfilling. An image is successful if these emotions are translated in some measure to the patient, staff, and family.
Waking early on the third day of my island adventure, I was greeted with a clear sky of deep cerulean blue arcing into the warm glow of dawn. I escaped the tent and felt vibrant again in that incredible place. I probably felt similar to a person being discharged from the hospital. Kevin Sink is the owner of Kevin Sink Photography in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at www.KevinSink.com.
- Ulrich R. S., Lundén O., and Eltinge J. L. “Effects of Exposure to Nature and Abstract Pictures on Patients Recovering from Heart Surgery.” Paper presented at the 33rd meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, Rottach-Egern, Germany, 1993 (Abstract published in Psychophysiology, 1993, 30 (supp.1),7.)
- Fredrickson B.L. “ Positivity ”, Random House Inc., New York, 2009
Healthcare Design 2010 November;10(11):132-133