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ER Doctor Documents COVID-19 Battle in a LA Hospital with His Camera

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There have been some dramatic images coming out of the coronavirus battle around the world and stateside as well. However, when a doctor attending on the patients is himself the photographer, there is a greater intimacy level involved as he understands what the caregivers and patients are undergoing.

Dr. Scott Kobner is the chief ER resident at the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center, one of the nation’s largest public health systems.

“Every day off that I had or sometimes after shifts, I would stick around or come in to do this kind of work to try to really be in a totally different role, one that had nothing to do with the medical care that was being provided, but in a position where I could use my knowledge and experience to help others kind of see the world through my own experience,” Dr. Kobner tells NPR.

NPR’s Rachel Martin interviewed Kobner about his photography for Morning Edition. You can listen to the 10-minute conversation here:

Dr. Kobner is an amateur photographer, and when the pandemic struck, he started using his Leica M6 and M10 cameras to record the goings-on in the ER. These photos were published by the Los Angeles Times this week. When one thinks of Leica, historical images of wars, pandemics, and other tragedies come to mind. The coronavirus is indeed the greatest modern-day tragedy that still refuses to go away quietly.

Photography is not my day job. Nor is it really my night job. My day-night job is emergency medicine. Being an emergency physician will always be my first love. But photography is a close second. The more you know about both, the more similar they become… Photography is the mindset of recognition and the preservation of the fleeting. The rest is just chemistry. –from Kobner’s website.

The photos are all in black and white and have the grim, stark look of a life and death struggle, which they are actually capturing. They may be somber scenes unfolding in another place to viewers, but to Dr. Kobner, it is the reality in front of him that he is recording.

“It’s a sacred honor to be with human beings during their most vulnerable, especially their last moments on Earth,” writes Dr. Kobner on his Instagram.

Dr. Kobner does not want his photography to in any way distract him from his life-saving duties at the hospital and therefore only captures images on his off days. He also makes it clear to the patients that he’s not involved in their care when he is taking photos. Although the hospital has permitted him to photograph its operations, he also makes sure to take permission from each patient.

Dr. Kobner grew up in Flemington, New Jersey, and attended New York University School of Medicine. Last spring, when he saw the pandemic completely taking over his home state of New York, he knew that it would not be long before the virus made an entry into California and wreak similar havoc.

The one photo that has touched him the most is that of his colleague Dr. Molly Grassini, trying and hoping a patient would revive. During the early days of the pandemic, a young patient experienced a cardiac arrest on his way to the hospital. The team was desperately trying to revive him, and Dr. Grassini is looking at the monitor with those hopeful eyes, just asking to see a heartbeat or some sign of life.

Dr. Molly Grassini watches the cardiac monitor during a pulse check, looking for signs of life in her patient.

“I think the best part about photography is that there’s an undeniable narrative authority to it,” Dr. Kobner tells NPR. “You know, when you see a photograph, you know that this was a documentation of a snapshot in time, and it wasn’t a reimagining of something.

“It wasn’t a drawing or a painting where, you know, many details could be – or had to be remembered or changed… And what’s allowed a lot of that misinformation and fear and conspiracy theory on some level to flourish about medicine is the absence, I think, of that narrative authority that something like photography can provide.”

Dr. Kobner wants his photos to show the general public what is really going on in the hospitals as they work round the clock to somehow save lives that are still slipping away.

(via NPR and LA Times)


About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him via email here.


Image credits: All photos by Dr. Scott Kobner and used with permission.

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