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Latin American Fotografia: Eric Michael Johnson

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 8, 2014


In 2012, Eric Michael Johnson had a rare opportunity to photograph neurosurgeons performing an operation called deep brain stimulation, a procedure used to treat people suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other maladies, including depression. Patients are awake during the operation, in which a pacemaker is implanted to send electrical impulses to specific parts of their brains.

“Psychosurgery presents lots of ethical issues, so that was one aspect of this that interested me,” says Johnson, a New York-based photographer and filmmaker who at the time was living in Mexico. Several of his friends there were doctors, including neurosurgeons at the Centro Medico Nacional 20 de Noviembre hospital, who told him about their work with DBS.

“When I heard about this certain type of psychosurgery, during which patients are awake, I had to see it,” says Johnson. “But it took several years for the right surgery to come along to photograph.”

The man being operated on was severely depressed and was undergoing DBS surgery after exhausting pharmaceutical treatments and repeatedly attempting suicide. When the doctors activated the pacemaker that had been implanted in his brain, he smiled.

“The surgeon referred to the stimulated part of the brain as the ‘nucleus of no hope,’" recalls Johnson. His image of the operation, shot with a Canon 5D Mark III, was later named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 2competition.

Currently, Johnson is working on another project related to medicine—documenting rural nurses as they care for residents of small farming and mining communities in Wyoming. “These people, like many others living in rural areas in the US, face difficulties in access to services and shortages of primary-care physicians,” notes Johnson, whose work in the state was funded by a grant from the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation in New York. He is now submitting the project to publications.

“My recent personal work explores healing practices and how participation in healing traditions can contribute to individual and collective identity,” says Johnson, who has documented a sanatorium for combat veterans in Russia, low-income healthcare surgeries in Mexico, and the largest homeless shelter in New York City.

 

 

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Dispatches from Latin America