‘I Discovered Angels’: Israeli Photographer Documents Heroes of Pandemic
Micha Brikman’s ode to hospital workers in coronavirus ward is exhibited in photo series at Haifa medical center
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic swept the world earlier this year, photographers of all stripes have been hard at work documenting the ravages the pandemic has wreaked on everyday life, from lockdowns and new social distancing norms to protests and economic devastation.
One photographer, Israel-born Micha Brikman, decided to turn his lens to the workers who have found themselves on the frontlines of the war. Nurses, doctors, technicians and other hospital workers all became the focus of his relentless pursuit to record the strange times we live in.
During the first wave of the pandemic and over the course of a week, Brikman snapped hundreds of pictures inside Haifa’s Bnai Zion Medical Center, capturing compelling images of daily life inside a place most would not dare approach.
Above all, he hoped to honor those struggling to work under increasingly difficult conditions.
“I discovered that there are angels here,” Brikman said of the experience in an interview with The Media Line.
I discovered that there are angels here
“I had heard about the coronavirus but did not get what it was all about until I came here. Then I understood what it means to be a fighter during the pandemic; they are truly fighters on the frontlines battling the coronavirus,” he said.
A nurse at Bnai Zion Medical Center’s coronavirus ward after a shift (left); post-shower later on (top right); before entering the ward (lower right). (All photos by Micha Brikman)
The results of Brikman’s efforts are currently on display at the entrance to the hospital in an exhibit titled “The Heroes of Bnai Zion Medical Center.” The images highlight moments of joy, sadness and hardship in the midst of the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over one million people worldwide and, as of Wednesday, 1,818 in Israel.
“We decided to put the exhibition here at the entrance to hospital as way of giving our staff recognition for the work they do,” Dr. Ohad Hochman, CEO of Bnai Zion, told The Media Line.
“It’s very difficult and strenuous work. Everyone who comes to our hospital, be they visitors or doctors, can now see them. They are our heroes, the ones who take care of coronavirus patients in an exceptional way,” he said.
A medical clown tries to bring some cheer to sick children at Bnai Zion.
Among the notable images on display are medical clowns trying to raise a little cheer in the children’s ward, and cleaning staff disinfecting waiting areas in full pandemic regalia. While these snapshots are poignant in their own right, the real stars of the show are undoubtedly a series of powerful portraits Brikman took of the medical staff working in the hermetically sealed COVID-19 wards.
The striking images of nurses and physicians – taken before shifts; immediately after they emerge from the ward and peel off their protective gear; and some 15 minutes after the decontamination process – are gripping portraits of the toll the pandemic takes on medical workers.
“What most surprised me was how giving the workers are. It’s something that I think about a lot,” Brikman stated.
“In the coronavirus ward they work in 12-hour shifts. They go in there wearing a protective suit and for three hours at a time, they can’t scratch themselves, go to the bathroom or do anything,” he went on.
“When they come out, if they discover that there’s a shortage of nurses or doctors, they say, ‘I can go back in if you need me to,’” he remarked. “This [kind of work ethic] is not a given at all.”
When they come out, if they discover that there’s a shortage of nurses or doctors, they say, ‘I can go back in if you need me to.’ This kind of work ethic is not a given at all
The physicians and nurses themselves were more than happy to take part in Brikman’s project.
“It was very touching,” Dr. Anna Solopov, the head physician in charge of the hospital’s coronavirus ward, told The Media Line.
“Truly, there is a lot to say about this: The photographer really wanted people to understand how hard it is, both mentally and physically, to work inside the coronavirus ward,” she noted.
“People on the outside – and even those here in the hospital who are working in other departments – really have no idea what’s going on in these wards,” she said.
Aya Eshel, head nurse of Bnai Zion Medical Center’s coronavirus ward, immediately after a shift (left); before a shift (top right); before entering the ward (lower right).
Aya Eshel, the ward’s head nurse, feels that Brikman had a positive effect on medical staff.
“We didn’t feel that the artist was disturbing our work as he was taking pictures,” Eshel related to The Media Line. “In fact, I could see that it was making the staff feel good.”
I could see that it was making the staff feel good
Forced to contend with an elusive and often deadly virus, both Eshel and Solopov believe that Brikman performed a public service by shedding light on the inner workings of the coronavirus ward.
“People need to understand that this is a very dangerous virus and that it’s impossible to know ahead of time who will get seriously ill from it,” Solopov stressed. “We know that younger people generally are less affected by it, but we’ve also seen people in their 30s, 40s and 50s get severely ill.”
A lab technician rests in a hallway at Haifa’s Bnai Zion Medical Center.
“I get the feeling that people don’t really understand this disease. It’s a really serious, confusing and challenging disease. People are being careless and not taking care of themselves or those around them,” she stated.
The exhibit will remain on display for several months. Some of the portraits have also been selected to be featured in the upcoming Local Testimony exhibition, a prestigious annual event highlighting exceptional works of photojournalism in Israel that is usually held at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.