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Field Notes From
Unmasking Skin

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On Assignment
ArrowsView Field Notes
From Author

Joel L. Swerdlow

On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Photographer
Sarah Leen

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Joel Swerdlow (top), and Brian Strauss


On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
Unmasking Skin

Field Notes From Photographer
Sarah Leen
Best Worst Quirkiest

Sometimes the best and worst are just flip sides of the same coin. This assignment was completed on what, for National Geographic, was a short deadline. The whole thing was like running a two-month-long marathon. Some of the images needed to address conceptual scientific ideas about skin and had to be shot in the Society's photo studio. That involved a lot of moving parts, difficult lighting set-ups, models, etc. I had worked this way before, but not quite to this extent. So I was nervous about my ability to accomplish what I was after. My photo editor, Kurt Mutchler, was a fountain of ideas—all difficult, brilliant, and very time consuming. We had many lively discussions on how to do everything we both wanted to do in the time we had. On many occasions I left his office feeling full of anxiety about doing what seemed to be impossible. But he never gave up demanding more from me, and I never gave up trying to do it. I had many sleepless nights but, in the end, I stretched and grew so much that I felt like we accomplished a minor miracle.

On a 12-hour flight to Thailand, I sat next to someone who sneezed and coughed the entire trip. A day and a half after I arrived in Bangkok I came down with a fever while I was still trying to recover from jet lag. Most of the week I was there, I walked around in a daze as I tried to work. Ordinarily, I would try to see everything I could in such an exotic locale, but I had to save my energy. So I rested every chance I got, often sleeping in the back seat of the car while someone else drove. But because I was photographing skin treatments, I got a couple of marvelous Thai massages and took an herbal steam bath at a temple. That seemed to help.

While photographing artificial skin in a Seattle burn unit, I met a surgeon with a unique definition of a good picture. He and his surgical team were preparing to cover a patient's badly burned legs with artificial skin. The burned tissue had been removed, so everything was very raw and hard to look at. Since I was there to photograph the use of artificial skin, I thought I could keep the actual operation and the more gory parts in the background. As the surgical nurses prepared the pieces of skin, the doctor invited me to come closer. I thanked him and said that I was fine. Finally he said, "Come here! look at this!" I went right up to the operating table and those very raw legs, and the surgeon began pointing out how neatly he had stapled the artificial skin and saying things like, "My, wasn't that a good spot? You should take a picture of this." And "Look how perfectly it wraps around this muscle. Wouldn't that make a nice picture?" Even though I didn't need or want that kind of photo, he was so insistent that I had to take it anyway. It was a bizarre moment.

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