1.3 Portrait typology

Exercise 1.3 Portraiture typology

Brief: In response to Sander’s work, try to create a photographic portraiture typology which attempts to bring together a collection of types. Think carefully about how you wish to classify these images; don’t make the series too literal and obvious.

Once complete, post these portraits on your blog or in your learning log, with a written statement contextualising the work (see the Introduction).

My typology of UK health care photographic portraiture

I have used the conceptual framework of typologies in my qualitative research before. We need a reservoir of images to produce this. I searched on Google using the terms, ‘portrait photography,’ ‘health care,’ ‘NHS,’ and ‘images.’ The order in which my typology appear is non-hierarchical.

1. ‘Posturing politicians’

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Politicians are not passive in their images or image management. It is like real life; they have something to say and want you to hear it. Often they have the NHS brand in the background as they want to identify with this ‘holy’ and iconic image and institution.

2. ‘Worshiping patients’

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As we will see later the ‘hero’ doctor or nurse is an iconic health care image, but veneration of doctors by patients is striking in health care images. You see no patient-doctor confrontational images. In the latter image the we also have the ‘smiling’ doctor or nurse – another prevalent health care image. I do often see this doctor worship in my own practice, particularly from older people, and find it uncomfortable.

3. ‘Passive recipient patient.’

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Often in these pictures we see something ‘being done’ to the patient; normally this is something routine and not intimate, the latter being difficult to show. Patients are portrayed as recipients of health care with the power being with the ‘special instrument’ wielding doctor or nurse. This is equipment that allows them to be ‘medically intimate’ with people.

4. ‘Technological titans’

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MRIs, X-rays, CT scans, computers, technology; the NHS is full of it and of the language, divination and interpretation that go with it. It is like alchemy. This language and these images of technology emphasise the ‘special powers’ that they have.

5. ‘Warrior surgeons’

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Nowadays a surgeon is not a surgeon in a portrait unless he is in the ‘robes’ or uniforms of blue or green scrubs. He is often wielding weapons such as scalpels and complicated equipment and examination tools and rays.

6. ‘Smiley, smiley nurses’

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My title is not an ironic title as I have tremendous respect for nurses who are one of the most undervalued members of the health service. I know from my experience as a patient that the nurses are the heart of health care. Often they are portrayed as smiling, but I don’t mind that as someone has to do the emotional; smiling, listening, joking etc; and when you are in hospital it is the relationship with the nursing rather than the medical teams that matters most. The downside of these smiling images is that it does not show the stresses and strains of nursing and their difficult wider caring role.

7.  ‘Masters of the Universe Of Health Care’

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Increasingly power in the NHS is with politicians, businessmen, managers and accountants. They alway look constrained and serious, but them health care is ‘big-bucks’ and a ‘National Treasure’ that can be ‘looted’ by big business.

Further notes

My typology is my selection of contemporary internet images of health care in the UK but I know that there are many other types out there and that there is a long history of patient portraiture (Jordanova, 2013). Some of the earliest images of patients are of those in mental institutions and perhaps they were coerced rather than consented to having their photographs taken. An example is below.

One of the most important group of photographs and portraits of illness in a person is of Prof. Stephen Hawking. He has become a celebrity due to his brilliance but a factor in that must be his disability, his approach to it and his appearance. He has clearly consented to having his image taken.

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Enter a caption

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What do I conclude from this exercise? I have lots of questions. Are we missing images of suffering and distress because we as a culture don’t want to see them?  Where is the personal and intimate? Why are patients and women rendered passive in these images, except in the unusual Stephen Hawking images? Is my typology valid or a result of cursory research?

I believe that there are a number of gaps in contemporary photography of the NHS and health care and perhaps my work might fill some of that space?


Portraits, patients and practitioners. L Jordanova. 2013. Med Humanities 2013;39:2-3 doi:10.1136/medhum-2013-010367