The Face of Our Nurses - Interview with Brian Maina

Marianne Stenger
8th July 2020

"If you had to describe how you feel about your job in just one word, what word would you choose?" This is the question that photographer and healthcare professional Brian Maina put to the NHS nurses he photographed over the course of a year. He says the idea for his social project, The Face Of Our Nurses, was born in 2017 when he had just left his nursing job to study medicine. As a nurse, he had seen and felt the pressure that nurses deal with on a daily basis, and wanted to highlight these difficulties through a series of photographs.

“Whilst studying medicine, I returned to the hospitals and asked several nurses to tell me in one word how they felt as nurses at that time and to also allow me to take a picture of them at that moment to accompany the word,” he explains.

“They weren’t given any instruction on how to pose or what word to say. But out of the 30 original pictures that I took, only two of them were accompanied with overwhelmingly positive words. This motivated me to display the images and words in an exhibition that would spark a conversation on the effects that the current healthcare system has on its clinical employees and therefore aid or act as a catalyst in the conversation for positive change in the NHS.”

His exhibition, which depicted nurses from different departments and disciplines including cardiology, A&E and paediatrics, was first displayed at the Camden Image Gallery in March just before the lockdown began. He intends to continue to develop the project further by including other nurses and clinicians, as well as displaying more images at another exhibition once it’s safe to do so. In order to get a better sense of the issues the UK’s nurses are currently facing, we spoke to Brian about why he decided to start the project and how he plans to expand it, as well as his own experiences working as a healthcare professional.

Can you tell us a bit about this photo series and the exhibition?

I exhibited 15 pieces from the series in March, just before the lockdown began. It was very timely, but it was a bit unfortunate at the same time. Not many people were able to come out and see it because the pandemic news had started to come out and we had to be careful not to allow too many people at the gallery.  So I’d like to display it again post lockdown once everything is safe, and then it can hopefully be seen by a wider audience.

Whilst working as a nurse I really saw and experienced myself how difficult it is to have a balanced lifestyle with the way the rota is and the 12 to 13-hour shifts. It’s also the way that institutionally the dynamics are so different. For instance, I trained in Finland for a year before I came back to start working in England and was able to see the different healthcare systems. Just seeing how undervalued the healthcare workers are here and how they’re treated by the public is sad in comparison to other healthcare systems in the world.

So, whilst I was a nurse, I was noticing all these things and it was sort of driving me to get the message out there and say “This is what’s going on” and just try to make people aware, challenge their thoughts and help them think differently.

Whilst studying medicine, I noticed that it’s sort of the same. It doesn’t really matter what ward you’re in or whether you’re a nurse or a doctor, because the it’s general public’s perception of you, and the institution itself treats you the same way and the work life balance is still bad.

I just wanted to get this out there and let people know that this is what’s going on. What I also realised is that the unions are so limited in what they can do. For example, nurses themselves in this country are legally not allowed to go fully on strike, because they have an obligation to care for the public. 

There are so many restraints, because the unions can’t do much, the nurses can’t do much, and the government hasn’t really been helping. So I really felt that the only people who could help were the public. That’s why this exhibition was important to me, to really reach as many people as possible. I still have hope that we can reach as many people as possible and help them understand what’s going on.

Photos © Brian Maina

Each image you took was accompanied by one word that described how the nurse was feeling at the time. How did you explain this concept when you approached them for a photograph?

When I asked the nurses if I could take a picture of them, I just didn’t provide any cues. I just told them to pose as they would normally. I’d find a white wall or a space somewhere in the ward and then I would ask them to describe how they were feeling as a nurse in that moment.

Some examples of some of the words they used included “sad,” “undervalued,” “underpaid,” and “overworked.” I think there were two overwhelmingly positive words. One was “blessed” and the other was “gift.” I think they felt they were given a gift of care, which is nice. So, for the exhibition, alongside each image you would find the word displayed right next to it.

Photos © Brian Maina

What is it like at the moment to be working in the hospitals?

I work in four different A&Es at the moment. Normally I mainly work in respiratory, but now I’m working in the A&Es. It’s a strange time to be working in this department. I don’t know if you heard in the news that A&E attendance has dropped by around 50%, and I felt that for maybe the last month in the four A&Es that I’ve been in. It’s been the strangest feeling.

It’s quite worrying for us, because what they’re saying on the news has been very obvious to us, you know “where is everyone with the serious conditions?” They just haven’t been coming in, so when we do see them it’s often quite late. So, I think that post lockdown it’s going to be very interesting for everyone, because we’re going to have to act quite differently and we will probably be under more pressure than we were.

The peak for Covid-19, in my experience, lasted for about two weeks. It was very intense, but we were able to manage it. Everyone really came together, and especially in the North London trusts they all worked as a collaborative and it really worked well, to the point where you still felt like you could provide quality care, even under so much pressure.

Do you have any plans to expand this photo series?

Yes. When I displayed it a lot of doctors and nurses who weren’t in the exhibition saw it and felt it was something they would like to be a part of. So definitely after lockdown, I’m hoping that more people will be able to see the exhibition and it will be able to reach a wider audience.

Doctors in particular really felt like they wanted to have their say, in a good way, so I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to do it. Originally, I wanted it to be just the nursing team, because 2020 is the year of nurses. So I felt it would be a great moment to get the word out. But the fact is it affects everybody.

It was sort of like a social experiment in the beginning, because I didn’t know what the words would be, even though I sort of knew the feeling. But of course, I didn’t know that they would use those words. This time around, it might be different, since people do kind of know what the series is about and that might influence it. So the way I display them might be different. I may separate the Faces of Our Nurses and the doctors a little bit. Or maybe separate it into “before lockdown” and “after lockdown,” although I haven’t really decided yet.

I’m just conscious of not posting such negative light on it all, because a lot of people do really enjoy their work and we’re all there because we want to be. So, I’m also hoping that we may see some nice words this time.

Photos © Brian Maina

Photos © Brian Maina. Visit his website to find out more about the Face of Our Nurses and other ongoing photography projects. For more interviews, photography inspiration, as well as advice for putting together your own photo books, be sure to browse the Bob Books blog.