'We really don't know how we survived'

At the height of the pandemic at Whittington Hospital, photographer Slater King unearths stories of grief, trauma and triumph

Reading time: 10 min

Like many freelancer workers during the first national lockdown in March, professional photographer Slater King’s work suddenly dried up.

No phone calls, no shoots, just an unending expanse of time – usually peppered with activity – now left abruptly unfilled.

But while much of the economy as we know it had suddenly fallen dormant, a parallel world — in normal times obscured by the relentless consumerism that preoccupies so much of our time — went into overdrive, illuminated in part by Thursday evening clapping.

This was the world of the caring classes – the people who tend to our loved ones, who save lives, who keep us fed, who look after our children.  And it was this world to which Slater, now out of work, turned his lens.

“I photographed nursery teachers, and people who volunteered at food banks – it’s not the type of work I would normally do but I felt this sudden responsibility to do it,” Slater told UniteLIVE. “My number one aim was to get into a hospital so that there was some sort of record of the people there doing this incredible work – that it was marked.”

In June, Slater managed to gain exclusive access to a Covid-19 ward at Whittington Hospital in north London, where more than a hundred patients and at least one staff member, a porter, had died from coronavirus since the pandemic began. Many more staff had in the weeks and months become seriously ill.

“I wanted to capture what it was like for these people working there – how do you get your feet to keep marching towards this place that’s killed at least one of your colleagues? How is it that you manage to do this?

“When I first came to the hospital, we were just off peak and there were a lot of people in there who had been haunted by that first wave. It was a really scary time because back then we knew so little about the virus — we didn’t really know how it was transmitted, what would happen when you caught it, the likelihood of survival, and there was not yet really any effective way to treat it.”

Slater wasn’t quite prepared for what he would find in the hospital.

“There was a very tight atmosphere. People were intently doing things – there was not a single person just sitting in a chair relaxing. Everybody was going somewhere, thinking about something; had something to do.

“I wasn’t entirely sure if I was doing the right thing by being there. But then the professional photographer clicked in and I told myself, ‘Okay well let’s deal with that when you get home tonight. But for now there’s something amazing in front of you and you need to get this right’. I felt a real sense of burden of getting it right.”

Unlike the many photo shoots Slater had been accustomed to, where he said, ‘you’re often given the people; people know that you’re coming’, there was no time for introductions and pleasantries.

“The most difficult thing was approaching each person because in each case I had to interrupt them, take them out of the flow of their day, and convince them that being open and honest about things they potentially hadn’t even told their partners was a worthwhile thing to do,” Slater explained.

He recounts speaking to an intensive care nurse, Wincey (pictured below), who despite grueling, breathless shifts that required laser focus, still managed to summon an extraordinary empathy for her colleagues.

“She kept saying how she felt so sorry about the people who had been seconded who had been brought in to help her because she didn’t have time to train them properly.”

“She had such empathy for these other people that she was working with and I pointed out to her – ‘Well you’re a human just as she is, and if you have empathy with these people, shouldn’t you have empathy for yourself?’

Slater had countless such poignant interactions with staff on the very frontline of the fight against the virus.

“The hardest thing was starting again at square one with each person who I spoke to and photographed,” he explained. “Because the relationship you built up, the amazing interaction you had with that one person, wouldn’t transfer because the two people didn’t speak to each other. It was like having to sing for your supper 10-15 times a day.

“But the most wondrous thing – was the luminosity of the care, dedication, honesty and skill that these people had. It really did make me believe that the reservoir of good, honest, kind, skilled people in the world is actually a lot larger than most people think. It made me realise – there are enough good people out there and we can get through this; we can do this.”

Slater now aims to turn his series of photos and interviews at Whittington Hospital – which have already won several awards – into a fundraising book, where proceeds will go directly to the hospital’s charity to help improve facilities for the very staff he photographed.

He hopes that through his photographs and interviews, people ‘on the outside’ as he puts it, gain some insight into the ineffable emotional toll the pandemic has taken on these frontline staff.

“What people don’t get is the emotional burden that being in that place puts on these people,” Slater explained. “We can hear it’s quite stressful that you’re holding an iPad up so that a patient can say goodbye to their loved one, you can hear it. But you can’t get it; you can’t understand it unless you were there.

“Lizzie, a physiotherapist, said she would get home and in her darkened room she could hear the ICU alarms still beeping in her head. For people outside, those alarms don’t beep in their heads. And like Wincey told me, ‘There’s no exact words that could describe what happened inside there. It’s just full of tears – we really don’t know how we survived.’”

“The emotional burden that these people carry is truly astonishing.”

This is why, Slater believes, so many NHS and other key workers fighting the pandemic reject the ‘hero’ narrative that has become so popular with the public since March.

“The word heroic implies you nip into a phone booth, you change your superhero outfit, do your thing, and you come back home in time for tea,” Slater noted.

“Heroic doesn’t imply that you sit at home in a darkened room and still hear the alarms in the ICU ringing in your ears. To call these people heroes is having outsiders enforce and put on them labels that makes the outsiders happy. That hero label isn’t made for the people inside the hospital’s benefit, it’s made for the people outside.”

Indeed, as UniteLIVE has highlighted since the beginning of the pandemic, more than anything our NHS staff want to be treated with respect – and valued – for the work they do.

“To me giving NHS workers a pay rise is as obvious as the nose on your face – what they do cannot be distilled into a spreadsheet. Their jobs are so much more than what it is on paper.”

Slater gave the example of Deme (pictured below), a porter at the hospital.

“He said something absolutely wonderful that I’ll never forget. Describing what he does daily, he told me, ‘I push people to the wards and I talk to them and make them comfortable. I just make them laugh so they forget their problems. You see, when someone comes to hospital they’re not happy at all. They’re worried and often they’re in pain. And so I just take some time talking to them, finding out where they’re from and what language they speak and I try to speak their language if I can. I ask their name, I try to joke, and make them forget their problems so they can be comfortable. I like to always make them smile. Talking to them can change their world.’

“This is a porter,” Slater noted. “This is a guy at the bottom of the ladder. If you’re a person setting their wage in the bowels of Whitehall you think ‘oh well they just push people around.’ But that’s not it – that’s not what they do, it’s so much more than that.

“That level of stepping out is what everyone in the hospital does and they do that at every layer.”

From his brief time on the very frontline of the virus – an outsider looking in – Slater hopes that through his work not only will the public gain a greater insight into the lives of NHS staff fighting the pandemic, but that NHS staff themselves realise the strength of their solidarity.

“My message to these workers, apart from the obvious thank you, is to say look around. There are more of you — more decent, honest and skilled people just like you – than you realise. Because of the quantity of you – which is the essence of a union — you have more power than you know.”

By donating to the fundraising Kickstarter campaign, you can purchase Slater’s photo book and all royalties will go to the hospital’s staff charity to directly benefit the NHS workers featured in the book. Slater also hopes to raise funds so that staff, as well as local schools near the hospital, can get free copies.

The deadline for the Kickstarter campaign to reach its fundraising goal is Saturday, December 19 , so don’t delay – you can donate to reserve your own a copy of Whittington Hospital in the Time of Covid by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign here.

By Hajera Blagg

Photos by Slater King

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