Susan McClellen, Creative Media Group
You could say that Susan McClellen has seen it all when it comes to the University of Iowa health sciences campus. That’s understandable, given that she has photographed countless surgical procedures, emergency room cases, research laboratories, construction projects, awards ceremonies, alumni reunions, and faculty and staff members on the west side of the Iowa River. A photo specialist with Creative Media Group since 1987, McClellen talked to fyi about on-call nights in a Westlawn dorm, operating room etiquette, and what she'll do to get the picture.
Working in the emergency room or the surgical suites in UI Hospitals and Clinics must have provided some interesting photographic moments.
I remember photographing a young man who, on a dare from a friend, swallowed three or four condoms full of marijuana, and one broke. He was pretty happy, but they still had to do surgery to get them out. I'd be called to shoot a lot of accidents like that—a fishhook in the eye, stuff like that.
But there have been many other serious moments. I've shot a lot of pictures over the years of patients admitted to the burn unit. Also, domestic violence and sexual assault cases—those were often very hard to photograph, because unless there were bruises there wasn't anything to “see.” Child abuse cases—those were never easy to do.
Can you remember what it was like the first time you photographed a surgical procedure?
I went in with another photographer the first time. There wasn't any formal training other than "Don't touch anything."
Basically, the photographer stayed out of the way until the surgeon or nurse told you to come over, and you'd lean in and get the shot without touching anything. After that first time, I was ready. It wasn't difficult. Sometimes a doctor or resident would explain the surgical procedure to you, but it wasn't really necessary. I was there to get the shot, and as long as they pointed to what they wanted, I got it.
The doctors and nurses were great. Once in a blue moon, a doctor might bump into you and it'd be your fault, but that was the exception. Most times they were very cordial and very accommodating. Rarely was I ever made to feel like I didn't belong in there.
Over the years you have photographed many distinguished guests who have visited the UI health sciences campus—politicians, Nobel laureates, Lance Armstrong. Do you ever get self-conscious while you're working, or feel like you're an annoyance or an intrusion?
Years ago, I was a portrait photographer at Sears, and I learned that it doesn't matter what you do, you're going to embarrass yourself. That's fine—just get the shot. You have to be willing to be an idiot, if necessary, or talk loudly or wave your arms or whatever. With a big group shot, for example, sometimes I'll simply choose one person in the group to tease or coax or direct in one way or another in order to put the rest of the group at ease while at the same time keeping their attention.
You have to put your ego aside to take a good photograph. It was painful to learn this, but I'll say anything if it'll help me get the picture. You have to get the shot, no matter what, because most times you don't have the luxury to go back later and do it again.
When you started at the University, Creative Media Group was known as Medical Photography/Medical Graphics. Describe your early days as a medical photographer.
We were located in the basement of the old Steindler Building. It flooded regularly, and I mean it flooded inches. That was not good.
I was originally hired as a photo lab technician, mainly because I lived out of town and the staff photographers at that time needed to be on call. Being on call meant you needed to be at the hospital within 15 minutes if a call came in. Eventually the office secured on-call quarters in Westlawn, which allowed me to become a photographer for Med Photo.
My on-call quarters was just a dorm room with a bed. Restrooms were down the hall, and at that time the only telephone was down the hall, as well. I had to leave my door open all night so I could hear the phone, because a phone call could be for anyone on the floor. I would half-listen for the phone, mainly to make sure no one else answered the phone and said, "No, there's no one here named McClellen," and then hang up.
Each photographer would be on call for one week at a time. So basically you wouldn't be home for a week.
No trips to the movies or anything like that?
We had a pager, so that was OK. You could go to dinner, but you realized that you might not get to finish your dinner. You certainly wouldn't go get your hair cut.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I have a new grandson, so that's pretty cool. I live in Wellman, and I sit on the board for the town's local cable access channel. I shoot a lot of video of school events for the channel—musical performances and plays, stuff like that. I also sit on the board of the Wellman Area Foundation, and I’m involved in the town’s efforts to build a recreation center and a badly needed day care. I've been a Girl Scout leader for 18 years. So yes, I stay pretty busy.
by David Pedersen