Learning From The Masters 009 — W. Eugene Smith
The defining moment for the photo essay happened 69 years ago. The date was September 20, 1948, when the magazine Life came out with Country Doctor.1 Photographer W. Eugene Smith had spent 23 days in the small town of Kremmling, documenting the challenges, defeats, and the satisfaction that marked the days of a young physician, Dr. Ernest Ceriani, who was responsible for some 2,000 people. Smith presented the day in the life, but his up close and personal story shows to this day the power of visual storytelling.
Intimacy Through Being Close
The essay feels intimate. We’re not distant observers. We’re right there. Back in 1948. Smith is up close and personal. He photographs in the scene, not at the scene. It’s this wide angle look that brings us right into the middle of the events and connects us with the moments.
Look at the picture that shows Ceriani in the back of a car, giving morphine to a woman while her grandson was sitting on the floor in front of them. Smith is OK with not standing back. He knows he needs to be close to connect his viewers with the moment unfolding in front of him. We can feel the doctor’s dedication and care, the woman’s trust in him, despite probably not knowing him.
The picture where Ceriani examines a young girl with tonsillitis demonstrates the same characteristics. Or look at the image where he explains an x-ray to a patient. Smith is directly under their noses. He has worked hard to gain that level of access to such delicate moments. People must be comfortable with him there if they move on with their business.
Drawing Attention Through Empathy
Advocacy. Pointing at problems in the world. A common theme for photojournalism — back in the 1940s and still today. Country Doctor draws attention to the dramatic shortage of small town doctors at the time. Smith’s portrait of Ceriani underlines the pressure that comes with that shortage. Smith is aware of the emotions involved. He’s careful. Observant. Respectful. It is his empathy as a photographer and journalist that guides our eyes to the problem at hand.
Smith has a clever approach here. Yes, he shows the busy interactions with patients, demonstrating the doctor’s passion to expand his expertise as needed. But he completes the picture by showing us the doctor off duty, and being recalled when his people need him.
Dedication And Passion To Tell Untold Stories
W. Eugene Smith is a great example of a dedicated storyteller who uses his passion for life to pursue and tell the untold stories. Documenting life this effectively is no small feast.
He spent 23 days in the field, observing every moment, ready to capture them in still images. Smith lives through the same tension and stress. He doesn’t stop before Ceriani is done with his day. Take the first and final image in the essay. The doctor arriving at a patient’s and totally exhausted in his kitchen at the end of a day.
To tell the story this well, it takes Smith the same level of dedication and passion that he recognizes in the people in front of the lens. The photographs — individually and as a collective — show that passion for journalism.
The Power Of Up Close And Personal
Photography has evolved since 1948. So has journalism and life in general. But still, the work of W. Eugene Smith holds great value — for society as well as for storytellers looking for advice and inspiration. Smith’s Country Doctor shows the ingredients of effective visual storytelling: being close to your subjects and the action, showing empathy to draw attention to problems, and being committed to your story without compromise.