National Geographic - 100 Best Pictures
In Focus
In the Lens of James L. Stanfield: Anxious Eyes
Photo: surgeon Zbigniew Religa

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After 23 hours and 22 rolls of film, photographer Jim Stanfield knew
he got the perfect shot. He’d captured the anxious eyes of Dr. Zbigniew Religa tracking the vital signs of a heart-transplant patient. “I never let him out of my sight, never turned my back on him,” he says. “This was the payoff.”

It was 1987, in an outmoded operating room in post-Soviet Poland. Stanfield was looking for an image that would portray the critical state of the country’s free health-care system—and that’s exactly what he got.

His lens not only focuses on a dedicated surgeon’s eyes, but also on a patient hooked up to technologically outdated equipment. Stanfield also includes a weary staff member (far right) sleeping after assisting Religa with two transplants during an all-night session. “Each of these elements,” says Stanfield, “gives dimension and drama to the photograph, while helping tell a story.

“In this day and age you need more than a pretty photograph, you need information,” he adds.

But before a photographer can get that kind of information, they need to put in a lot of time. Stanfield studied Religa carefully, established a bond of trust, and then assumed a quiet presence in the surgeon’s surroundings.

“My skill probably lies in my ability to enter into the flow of people’s lives,” he says.


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Photo: James Lee Stanfield
James Lee Stanfield has undertaken more than 65 assignments for the Society since 1967. His ability to tackle monumental subjects has enriched articles on the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the coronation of the shah of Iran, and the Vatican. Stanfield’s work in and around St. Peter’s grew into a best-selling National Geographic volume, Inside the Vatican.

His contributions to the world of photojournalism have earned him the recognition of his peers. The White House News Photographers Association has chosen him as Photographer of the Year in 1970, 1977, 1982, and 1987. The National Press Photographers Association also named him Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1985 and presented Jim with the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999.

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