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Late last summer, when the Ebola epidemic started spinning out of control, Mary Beth Heffernan couldn’t get her mind off it. In media reports, she observed nurses wearing disturbing hazmat suits that made them look like aliens.
“Wouldn’t they be less frightening if the person on the inside was pictured on the outside?” Heffernan asked herself. She started imagining portraits of the healthcare workers displayed on the front of their smocks. “It was then I realized that I was the one to put [their] photographs on the outside of their ‘personal protective equipment’ (PPE), so that patients could see images of their faces,” she told Hyperallergic.
Heffernan is not a doctor, an epidemiologist, a public health worker, or even a disaster relief worker. She had no connections to international aid or governmental organizations. In many ways, she’s one of the last people you’d imagine would be useful in helping contain a contagious disease epidemic: she’s an artist.
“My art practice is animated by questions about corporeality, how we emerge as subjects, and our relationship to images. So I was seized by the level of human suffering, and also its representation in the press,” Heffernan, who teaches sculpture and photography at Occidental College in Los Angeles, recalled. “I knew my idea was needed. I knew it would work, and I was confident I could do it if I was given a chance.”
In January, after sending a digital mock-up of what the project would look like to several NGOs, she secured an introduction to Dr. Soka J. Moses, clinical director of the largest Ebola treatment center in Monrovia. He was enthusiastic, and passed her proposal on to Dr. Moses Massaquoi, the Liberian official charged with managing the crisis. Within a month, she and colleague Marc Campos were on a plane to West Africa, toting 12 large boxes packed with cameras, printers, and label-making equipment.
Once on the ground, they got to work creating what Heffernan calls a “social sculpture,” following Joseph Beuys’s conception of art that “mold[s] and shape[s] the world we live in.” They took snapshots of doctors and nurses and printed out stacks of stickers that could be easily slapped onto protective gear at the start of each day. Suddenly, patients were able to identify their caretakers — even after they transitioned from the critical “hot zones” to the “green zones” of recovery, where workers’ faces are visible.
“I didn’t go around announcing I was making ‘art,’” Heffernan said. “I wanted to fix a specific problem, and I did everything I could to ensure that it was effective, culturally competent, and ethical.” She measured the project’s impact by interviewing patients and workers and received feedback that was effusively positive. One doctor told her, “It’s nice to look around and be like, ‘Oh that is Bomia,’ or, ‘Oh that is Gorpu.’ It makes it feel more like I am working with people, with my team, instead of inanimate objects.” An Ebola Treatment Unit director said she was the first to address a need already noted in their operating manual. “The data are, of course, qualitative but unfailingly positive,” Heffernan concluded, adding that medical studies have shown positive social gestures can influence medical outcomes and actually reduce healing time.
Still, some might have a difficult time considering the project “art,” as art is often represented in culture as a luxury — something that’s not necessarily useful or practical. It may also seem strange to think about it when death is so near. Heffernan said she finds such thinking “tedious” and “unimaginative”: “It begs the question of why art (or artists) are not entrusted to deal with serious matters, or death. Why is calling something art perceived as disrespectful or demeaning?”
After all, what drove her to act wasn’t science or politics but art itself. Her study of photography and physiognomy — facial features and expressions thought to indicate character — and the way they animate our understanding of images like criminal mug shots and family portraits informed her thoughts about the appearance of Ebola healthcare workers and made her interested in getting involved. “If my art practice taught me this,” she said, “if art made me care deeply about how to intervene ethically and imaginatively, why not call it art?”