Q&A with Photographer David Seaver
Burlington, Vt.-based photographer David Seaver spent four days in the summer of 2018 embedded with students and faculty completing a global health elective in Uganda through the UVM/Western Connecticut Health Network Global Health Program. Learn more about the multi-day shoot, and how he approaches photography when crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries.How do you prepare for a trip like this one?
Preparing for a trip like this starts with all the usual preparation for any trip, including the logistics of getting to Uganda, visa application, getting the proper vaccinations, and booking flights and hotels. After the basics are covered I started researching as much as I could about the country, its people, and state of development. I also began reading their current news to get a little insight into what might be happening. As part of the Global Health Program, there was a "Boot Camp" where all participants got together to go over safety concerns, general information, and what was expected during our stay. The Boot Camp also gave me an opportunity to meet with the people I would be photographing and to answer any questions they had about how it would work to have a photographer following their every move. There were also meetings with the medical communications team at the Larner College of Medicine to start the process of figuring out what photos we wanted to get. At this point I started to visualize and sketch out photos that might be possible and to think through how to create them. Thinking through photos before I arrive in a location helps me to settle into the actual work of creating the photos. All of this preparation generates longs lists of items to be packed, photos to be created, and reminders of things to be done before leaving.What is it like to shoot in a location like Kampala, where there are cultural and linguistic barriers? How do you approach photographing subjects?
The Ugandans that I encountered generally spoke English or Lugandan, or some combination of the two. For the ones that didn't speak English, hand signals almost always worked, or if necessary I would ask someone to translate. Everyone I met was incredibly warm and welcoming. I find that smiling and being friendly leads people to open up and relax. While working in the hospital I always got a subject's approval before photographing them, and respected their wishes if they declined. I never had any trouble finding subjects willing to be photographed. I don't try to hide the fact that I'm a professional photographer and find that the more forward and open I am about my intentions, the more apt people are to agree to be photographed. We had the full support of hospital and local doctors, which made this whole trip possible. We made sure they knew our intentions, how I planned to work, and what our overall goals were. I wanted there to be as few surprises as possible for them.You had four days with the students and the faculty – how did you approach those three days to make the most of your time?
I had four full days embedded with two Larner College of Medicine students, one resident from Norwalk Hospital, one doctor from Hudson Headwaters Health Network (Paul Bachman), and Global Health Program Director Mariah McNamara. My main goal was to document the two students, but also to get photos of the faculty and physicians at the site, as well as general photos of the small village hospital, and the life that the students had while living in Uganda. I needed to be ready to get any "action shots" of the students engaging with local patients and doctors, which meant staying close to them and being ready at a moment's notice. Our days started with a meeting with the hospital's director, which was followed by rounds. After rounds the students had opportunities to scrub into surgery, work on their ongoing research project, give presentations, and review ongoing cases. I tried to capture everything, from the intense to the mundane, to give a better idea of what it was like for them during the global health elective. Being with everyone for multiple days gave me a chance to experiment and get into the flow of movement as we progressed through each day. It also allowed everyone to become used to my presence and having a camera clicking in the background. Ideally, I want people to go about their business so I can capture real moments. Normally I only have a short window of time to create photos, sometimes as little as a few minutes, so having multiple days was an amazing opportunity for me. I always had my initial list of photos I wanted to capture in the back of my mind, while I tried to be creative with what was in front of me. I photographed as much as I could, which generated thousands of photos each day.What was it like getting to know the medical students and faculty? What did you learn from them?
It was nice to have enough time with the students and faculty to actually get to know them on a personal basis. I usually pop in and out and have little time with my subjects. I had photographed a few of them before the trip, but I never had time to talk to them or get to know them in any way. I think it helped them as well, putting them more at ease with the camera. This allowed me to ask questions, and get a better understanding of what they were doing, and allow for a more relaxed atmosphere. I could see their passion for medicine and watch them interact with patients over and over. This enabled me to anticipate how they might move in a certain setting and position myself to get the shot. We were all staying in the same guesthouse, having breakfast and dinner together, where there was plenty of laughter and camaraderie. What will you remember most about being in Uganda with the group?
Of course there were photographic highlights, including multiple surgeries and patient home visits, but what will stick with me most was the warm welcome I received from everyone who was part of the program. It was a great experience to find the rhythm of the team and be able to photograph their work.