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Aaron Zhao ’22: Rural Medicine, A Photographic Depiction

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2021

This project is a photographic documentation of the unique practice and life of physicians who treat underserved/under-resourced communities with shortages of health care in North Carolina.

About the Project

Over the course of this past summer (’21) and subsequent fall and spring semesters, I am developing a photographic documentation of the practice and life of rural physicians who treat the underserved and under-resourced communities of North Carolina. I aim to examine and photographically depict the unforeseen triumphs and challenges of practicing 21st century rural medicine in North Carolina.

Drawing initial inspiration from the seminal works of W. Eugene Smith, I hoped to take a modern-day approach to the question: “What does rural medicine look like today?”

Using the funds generously awarded by the Benenson Family, I was able to experiment with novel approaches toward documentary photography. Over the summer, I partnered with two physicians and clinics in rural North Carolina for this portion of my project. Through the advice of my advisors, I was able to find a way to engage myself with the participating communities without disrupting travel restrictions.

I bought and shipped several batches of disposable film cameras to the clinics, and I asked each participating physician to distribute the cameras into the hands of their patients. Each patient was to receive a disposable camera, along with a note with suggestions to guide them on this project. Because each physician had close ties with their patient population, they were able to help facilitate the execution of this project idea. Each participating patient had 27 exposures (the size of the film roll) to photographically depict their own idea of what encapsulates “rural medicine,” their lives, and their town. When they came back to the doctor’s office for a follow-up appointment, the participating physician collected their completed camera roll, and shipped it back to me for processing and development.

One of the most difficult tasks for a documentary photographer, yet one of the most cardinal rules in documentary photography, is to let the subjects drive your narrative. I hoped that this approach offered an opportunity for the subjects of my project to tell their story through their own lens.

I soon began hearing back from my participants, learning about their experience with this project. The photographs they captured will be integrated into and utilized in the continuation of this long-term project.

Reflecting on Arts Amidst COVID-19

The support from the Benenson Award gave me the freedom and latitude to experiment with new methodologies of photography. Although COVID-19 forced me to deviate from my initial plan for this project, it also allowed me to take artistic risks, explore my medium, and grow as an artist.

Without the funds from the Benenson Family, I would have not been able to purchase, process, and develop all the photographs captured this summer.