GP Chris Reid, in the very spot his patients posed for the camera, with his book Patient: Portraits from a doctor's surgery. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Rare glimpse into patients' lives
Peter de Graaf talks to a Northland doctor about a two-year project to photograph almost every one of his hundreds of patients, and the extraordinary book that resulted
Most patients don't go to their GP for a consultation and end up with a portrait.
But then Chris Reid isn't most doctors.
This weekend sees the culmination of a project by the Bay of Islands GP to photograph virtually every patient that walked into his surgery during the past two years.
The result is an extraordinary collection of photographs capturing a cross-section of Northland society - from an ex-pat billionaire to struggling solo mums, Maori and Pakeha, toddlers and nonagenarians. There are mothers and daughters, couples, mates, kuia and kaumatua, and a few people who have since passed away but whose families still wanted the photos to be used.
The images are a mix of colour and black and white, all but two taken against the bare grey wall of his surgery in the natural light of a single window.
About 150 of the best images have been brought together in a book launched in Kerikeri last night and called Patient: Portraits from a doctor's surgery. Forty photos, eight of them blown up many times life-size, are on display at the Turner Centre until October 27.
The idea came to Dr Reid when he was making house calls as a GP in England more than a decade ago.
"It dawned on me what a privilege that was, walking into these people's lives. If you could capture that it would something quite special."
His interest in portrait photography was nothing new. After leaving the Navy he learnt the basics on a course he never quite finished, took portraits for friends and dabbled, somewhat reluctantly, in wedding photography.
Dr Reid put the idea on hold when he moved to New Zealand in 2004 - the family lives in Russell while he commutes to work at Kerikeri Medical Centre - but revived it two years ago when he felt his photography was good enough.
The final impetus came when his wife, Sara, bought him a new camera on the condition he finally made his idea reality.
Instead of photographing patients in their own homes he decided to capture them in his surgery.
"It was a chance to explore photography in depth, within the confines of one room," he said.
One lunch time he nipped out to a nearby hardware store for a tin of paint and, with help from a nurse, turned one wall into a suitable backdrop. He still had no idea how his patients would react.
The GP always waited until the consultation was over before asking if he could take a picture. He made it clear there'd be no ill feelings if the patient refused and that he was trying to capture the person, not the reason for the visit. His subjects also had to give written consent.
"If the first half dozen had said, 'You're dreaming', it would never have gone any further," Dr Reid said.
To his surprise, however, the first patient said yes. And the second, and the third.
Of the more than 400 patients he asked only two said no, and one of those later changed her mind. Ironically her portrait is one of the most powerful in the book.
Dr Reid never asked his patients to pose, "they just did what they wanted".
Some stare straight into the lens, others out the window. Others huddle together in whanau portraits that, but for the clothing, could have been taken by Ans Westra in her 1960s studies of rural Maori.
The project received a major boost last November when Dr Reid's portrait of artist Foster Clark won the people's choice prize at the BDO Northland Art Awards.
"That gave me a bit of mileage and I realised I had to start thinking about getting it published. I thought it would be a nightmare."
He took advice from Kerikeri artist Lester Hall, the renowned Russell-based photographer Frank Habicht - "he's been a bit of a mentor" - and even TV psychic Kelvin Cruickshank, who put him onto his publisher, Penguin Books.
When Penguin eventually turned down the book he was free to approach Craig Potton, a Kiwi publisher whose philosophy was a better match for the project.
"Two days later they phoned back and said, 'We'll do the book'."
Then came the hard part. The 400-plus photos had to be whittled down to the 150 or so that would fit in a book, a choice made on photographic merit and, in a few cases, the story behind the photo.
The subjects, who are identified only by their first names, decided what would accompany their portraits.
Some wanted the briefest of captions, explaining their reason for visiting the doctor; others brought in virtual life stories. One brought in a wedding photo, another a poem penned by Glenn Colquhoun when he lived in the Bay.
The only easy choice was who to put on the cover. Dr Reid said June Hei Hei of Te Tii, who had the book blessed at her marae, was a symbol of the Bay of Islands community.
"She epitomises what the book is all about. I've seen her in the waiting room of our surgery on many occasions, talking to all the staff and patients, always by their first name and always with genuine compassion and respect. She just seems to know everyone."
The book and accompanying exhibition were launched at Kerikeri's Turner Centre last night. All patients featured in the book were invited. Royalties from the book, and the profits from any prints sold, will go to Mid North St John.
Dr Reid said he had been touched by the number of patients who had asked him when "our book" would be ready.
"I think it's a social commentary of Northland, of who we are. Hopefully I've captured something of what our community is all about. There's a lovely link to us all."
First published in The Northern Advocate, October 11, 2014.