BCA News: Winter 2020
Hoosain Ebrahim, FBCA
What is your primary line of work?
Retired Director (June, 2016) of the Department of Medical Illustration and Audio-Visual Services. I was appointed in July 1982 at the Medical University of Southern Africa (MEDUNSA). On 1st January 2005, MEDUNSA merged with the University of the North to become the University of Limpopo (UL). On 1st January 2015 the Department of Higher Education "unbundled" (demerged) the MEDUNSA Campus into the now newly established Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU). I occupied the same workspace for 35 years and 6 months!
Department services provided were AV and technical services, advisory and consultancy, training and instruction, Distance and Tele-Education, e-learning, Telemedicine, research, educational media services, imaging – visible and invisible range (Medical, Dental, Scientific, Research and Forensic Photography). As Director my responsibilities also included financial administration, staff/departmental management.
What got you inspired to be a photographer/illustrator? Tell us about your career path?
At primary school I had a fascination with photography and 8mm movie making. An uncle of mine was an avid photographer who owned a Minolta SRT101 camera. In high school my interest grew. I had my own 8mm standard Canon movie camera where I was the school's film-maker covering all sorts of events. At that time that nothing existed for non-whites in South Africa where I could attend a college or university offering a program in either motion picture production or photography.
My interest in clinical photography was first triggered in 1965 whilst perusing an anatomy textbook. In 1971 I moved to London to attend a program in motion picture and television production at the London Film School in Covent Garden. During my time at film school I had an opportunity to be an observer in medical illustration at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. I then decided to pursue a career as a medical photographer.
In 1973 I returned to Cape Town and was fortunate to be employed as a part-time clinical photographer at Somerset Hospital. In 1975 I was accepted into a program encompassing modules of scientific photography, photographic science and technology at the Polytechnic of Central London.
Two months before I completed my course I was shortlisted for trainee medical photographer at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School and a few weeks later I was appointed by Ms. Turnbull, Director of Medical Illustration. On my first day at work the white crisp coat with my name tag was hanging and waiting.
Dr. A. R. Williams was appointed as the Director of Medical Illustration when Ms. Turnbull retired and my career blossomed in directions I never knew existed. He made sure that I completed the basic certificate in medical photography and then within days he told me to register for the higher certificate in medical photography of the Institute of Incorporated Photographers. Under the tutelage of Dr. Williams, I developed and advanced in both my skills and knowledge, he afforded me his time and reared me as a medical photographer.
In 1982, I was head-hunted to start the first ever medical photography unit at MEDUNSA near Pretoria. Dr. Williams encouraged me to accept the offer. What was frightening was the career leap from a basic grade medical photographer's position to chief medical photographer and a few years later I was appointed as Director of Medical Illustration and AV Services. It was the first and only centralized department in South Africa. This was the birth of medical photography in South Africa.
The accreditation team of the Health Professions Council of South Africa would use the department as model for other medical universities. My career in medical photography began with wonderful support from so many wonderful and caring people.
Describe your typical workday.
Every day is a full day and very challenging, some days are filled with post-mortem photography, imaging in the dissection hall, gross-specimen photography, conference planning and attending a faculty board meeting. The day would begin at 7:00 am with a staff production meeting from the four sub-divisions of my department.
The day would be incomplete if there was not an urgent request from the operating theatres whether to photograph patients, assist the video section with recordings, or to handle a problem associated with the operating microscope.
What is most rewarding about your work?
I had full autonomy over my responsibilities as well as a great degree of freedom within my job. There was a genuine spirit of cooperation and shared goals all revolving around helping the customer. The one aspect that I enjoyed was developing my skills and helping to foster the growth of my staff. As I taught others, I reinforced my own knowledge and understanding base. The most rewarding aspect of my job was to contribute to the betterment of the patients using medical photography where it is meaningful and beneficial to society. My research and presentations at various conferences gave me the opportunity to share ideas and receive information that would assist in my quest to serve patients.
Where do you find creative inspiration when work begins to feel routine? What motivates you to continue in your line of work?
I am very passionate about my profession and my work. I do my utmost not to reach the level when work begins to feel routine. If you do not feel excited by the task in front of you it is impossible to do your best work no matter what rewards it might bring. A medical illustration unit and its environment, I believe, creates the right conditions for one to find motivation. If you cannot find it, you have not looked for it! Every day poses a new unexpected challenge.
Do you have any tips or special techniques for connecting with your subject?
Clinical photography contributes to patient care, medical records, research, publication, teaching and is based on a system of standardization which quite frankly helps as the foundation for most medical imaging including forensic photography.
Technique is important only in so far as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created solely in order to make your vision effective. Bear in mind we also have to be cognizant of the fact that most times what we have and how to record it is dictated by our subject matter and preset principles. Know what you have to photograph and how – all of the above saves time for the patient where applicable.
What technology, software/gear do you use? Are people skills as important as technical skills in your line of work?
When we made the change to digital technology, we invested in Nikon D700 cameras. We were also able to use the D700 on multiple pieces of equipment for example the Nikon Multiphot system. It was also used for Dermoscopy with the Heine Delta 20 System. Software packages included Photoshop, Lightroom, Corel Draw and a few others. We standardized on the Elinchrom lighting system.
Both people and technical skills are important in my field of work. Our obsession with specialization and technical skill adoption has created a false divide that privileges one over the other, so much so that skills are discounted. It is not whether you have the right skills, it is whether you have the potential to learn new ones. People skills are affected by communication and thinking thus making it more difficult to measure than technical skills. Technical skills help to build the fundamentals of a craft so that one can consistently and deliberately practice and refine processes over time. People skills assist in thinking outside of the box, interact with colleagues, collaborate, communicate and do creative work regardless of how good and competent one is. Technical skills assist in meeting the demands of the clinical request that the patients present with in order to provide a holistic approach to patient care.
Do you have special interests outside of work? Do you do photography outside of work?
My special interest outside of work include the building of miniature (1:12 scale) Victorian Dollshouses and HO Scale (1:87) Marklin trains. Both the dollshouse and miniature rail hobbies have been challenging but my photographic background has assisted me with issues of scale, composition and perspective. These hobbies contributed to my being able to cope with work pressures and housework!
Since retirement in June 2016 I have not had much time or opportunity to do photography for leisure purposes, as I have been busy with my hobbies and so many other things of an academic nature such as journal reading, consulting references and reading textbooks for various purposes.
Do you have any advice for photographers/illustrators interested in a career in biomedical/life sciences photography?
I would strongly recommend that photographers and illustrators who are interested in a career in biomedical life sciences do a fact-finding exercise about the career to determine if it suits them. I would recommend pursuing a course with scientific imaging modules that would enable candidates to build on their practical skills and thereafter pursue a career opportunity in biomedical photography. The same route could be followed for illustrators to attend a full-time course in scientific illustration.
It is important to possess the right kind of temperament in terms of qualities of independence, drive, perseverance, resilience, empathy, sympathy and the ability to work in a team. It is important to belong to an Association where you will meet your colleagues and future mentors.
During 1988 I devised a method utilizing colour photography where accurate iris disks were reproduced and successfully used in the construction of ocular prostheses. The entire procedure took a day so patients would arrive early morning for the photographic procedure and the Cibachrome prints would be sent to the laboratory where the In-dwelling technique was used in the production of these Ilfochrome Photo Eyes. The patients would leave for home with their new eyes. As a result of the socio-economic problems in South Africa and patients having limited funds for transport it was imperative that the whole procedure was completed in a day. The late Jack Vetter, RBP, FBPA commented in his report about my presentation "Eyedentical Production of Irises for Ocular Prostheses" delivered at the 4th EFSI International Conference held in Goteborg, Sweden, in 1994 "that it was one of the few times photography directly benefits the patient" (BPA News Spring 1994 No. 191). This was a unique service.
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