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  • Writer's pictureSophie Sheinwald

Behind the Mask - Dr Dana Beale with photographer Richard Ansett

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

This project started out as a tribute to healthcare workers to highlight their value, contribution and dedication to us. However, it’s expanding as we continue to explore this powerful story of patient care, teamwork and the photographers who’ve reached out to help them shine.

Three Layers of Lives

Healthcare workers are undervalued, so in these weekly posts, they are introduced individually, as well as the portrait photographers, who creatively and thoughtfully composed their photographs. In this very article, I also want to shine a light on those people who’ve lost the safety of their homes and have had to sleep on the streets – so we have three layers interwoven.

The photo of Dr Dana Beale was one of the 100 exhibited, Behind the Mask, portraits of UK healthcare workers for the 2020 Vision Project. Camberwell based artist and portrait photographer Richard Ansett, met Dana along a canal by her narrowboat home in London, with baby Lily.

Dr Dana Beale with daughter Lily photographed for the 2020 Vision Project, on her narrowboat home in London by Richard Ansett
Dr Dana Beale with daughter Lily, photographed by Richard Ansett

Dana works as a doctor at Great Chapel Street Medical Centre in London's Westminster borough, which has one of the highest of street-homeless populations. The medical centre was designed and commissioned to be entirely focused on people who are homeless. Since 1978 it has been a hub for receiving and helping people who live on the streets thanks to a very dedicated multi-disciplinary team.

Balancing Family Commitments with a Pandemic

“I had very distressing conversations with my husband planning for what we would do if I developed symptoms. How I would have to leave our narrowboat home to self-isolate elsewhere and leave behind my 6-year-old, but also my 8-month-old – who I was still breastfeeding every night. Yet still I knew I HAD to be working and involved.

I remember the sheer relief of the country entering lockdown as it became clear COVID-19 had taken hold. Though I was pleased to see deserted roads on my drive into London, and Central London looking like a ghost town – I also felt a deep sense of trepidation about what was to come. Not knowing whether all of my team would make it through ok. I was wondering how on earth our homeless population would fare. I was working suddenly full-time, almost seven days a week, to help get them safely into hotels and off the streets.”

Once Covid hit, it was the the #everyonein campaign, that instigated much needed emergency relief throughout the UK, helping 15,000 with a safe place to stay in 2020.

One United Team

"I was working with simply incredible people. My own immediate team who joined myself and my joint clinical lead partner Natalie, in turning our service around at the flick of a switch to meet the needs of our patients. Never complaining, working all hours, still finding time to look out for us and each other, making us laugh and sometimes cry. Also new people we had never worked with before, who stepped up and joined us. "

"Working across agencies, across authorities, as one united team, desperate to stop a COVID-19 tsunami from devastating our patients."

Homeless but still Human

Dana and her team witness people with various circumstances who have each lost their homes,

“There are people who are working every day but can’t afford a place to stay, so they rough sleep. Each of them have hopes and dreams. Some have led very turbulent lives but they are so resilient, it’s people and their resilience who inspire me.”

Emergency in 2021

Dana revealed how desperate the current situation is, “I was very proud of the initial homeless health sector’s emergency response, but the flow to the streets hasn’t changed, We are also now seeing much higher numbers of infections in both our support staff and the patients who are experiencing homelessness, so 50% of the infections are in patients, 50% in support staff. We are in a vicious cycle.”

Dana is desperate to help turn this around in 2021. A study was made on geriatric conditions and multi-morbidity in people experiencing homelessness. Dana said that "many people living on the streets and in hostels for people experiencing homelessness, have a body age increase of 30 to 40 years, making them very vulnerable to infection." When I asked her how people reading this article could help, she directed me to the grassroots organisation, the Museum of Homelessness, who are community driven and run by people with direct experience of being homeless.

The Power of the Visual Story

But none of these issues would have had the chance to been highlighted, if it wasn’t for portrait photographer Richard Ansett opening up this visual story to get behind the mask with Dana and her daughter Lily over the summer.

Insight from an Artist

When Richard Ansett submitted his request to join the 2020 Vision Project collective, I was delighted.

Photographer Richard Ansett

The project was attracting a varied selection of visual storytellers from across the UK. I just knew he would bring something thoughtful to the table. once I saw his work. For the project, Richard produced a wonderful series of photos all relating to the subject of homelessness. For March 2021, we plan to have these incredible stories included in our online tribute to healthcare workers, an exhibition to mark a year since the initial pandemic. Richard’s style has a powerful narrative content and makes you want to know more about the subjects. It’s a privilege to have him participate in the 2020 Vision Project.

What makes the portrait of Dana your favourite shot and how did you manage to capture it?

“Dana’s new baby Lily was fascinating to me, not only for her immediate resemblance to the mischievous cherubs of renaissance art, but through her we see Dana as a mother first before GP and frontline worker.

Outside on the roof of their canal boat, as I moved a branch, Lily became fascinated reaching out for it and her effort to grab it completed the cherubic parody. The joy in the capture of these moments, the coming together of otherwise disconnected events to form a whole defines a great image for me. So this is as much a document of that moment and celebration of the synergy of accident and design.

"The mimicking of the masterpieces of art history in my little opus is in part to elevate Dana to the greatness she deserves although I did persuade her to stay in her bright purple crocs. I love these small details that represent modern life, In my own mind I imagine them as clues for a future audience of how we lived, not unlike the oranges on the window sill of the Arnolfini Marriage which is a painting that has always inspired me."

This was my only opportunity throughout the series to include a complex sky, which is one of my most revisited motifs. I am addicted to the tradition of this socialist realist trope and I return to it whenever I can. But equally I am drawn to the notion of the pathetic fallacy (the human experience attributed to the natural environment) and the dramatic clouds I hope say something about the tumultuous times Dana and Lily are living through.

There's something unique that you bring to the photos, the way you put the narrative together. Tell us a little about that?

"The dogmas that define my style are emotionally led, a ‘successful’ image requires a number of criteria to ‘pass’ and I am constantly negotiating with the environment, manipulating the molecules in front of the lens towards an image that satisfies my emotional triggers. This doesn’t sound very empathic I know, but my priority is always to capture something existential, using the subject as a conduit to explore some bigger story and this is a big story.

I can be overly confluent with others, a bad habit developed as a bi-product from an adopted psychology that has inspired a fascination for other people’s lives relative to my own; an overwhelming need to belong; to feel normal; that combined with my homosexuality as an important contributing factor in any empathy I might have, which comes not inherently but from a need to read people very quickly as self protection go towards the decisions I make in the moment towards the final image.

I learned very early in my teenage fumblings with a camera that I could control certain elements of a composition and minimise failure, I set up cameras to capture close up images of garden birds and this process has basically continued but with humans. I invite the unknown variable (the human mostly) to enter into this controlled space like the blue tit on the nut bag.

Blue Tit, photographed by Richard Ansett

"So much of my work that is most valuable to me comes from working in the moment exploring humanity as it presents itself to the camera relative to these firm boundaries."

I have an ambivalent brain, I constantly seek alternative narratives, I am an instinctive iconoclast, tearing down statues wherever they appear, even ones I devote to myself. So my images can possess, in a single moment, a mass of contradictions, which I must handle like a stage full of spinning plates.

Tell me something key you learned from this photographic experience.

I feel an overwhelming responsibility to my archive, my legacy and style of working and my need to continually evolve as an artist ironically can interfere with the simplicity and vitality of responding to the moment.

“After the enforced time to reflect during lockdown 1, the 2020 Vision Project’s invitation to join you, enabled me to re-engage with the medium from a new direction or at least to re-connect to the joy and innocence of seeking a great image again irrespective of what had gone before. It feels less like a re-invention but more like a re-set to ground zero and this has inspired and re-energised me to pursue other major projects since.”

Why did you choose the project?

To be trite I feel it chose me, my nature draws me to explore reality from alternative angles, an acceptance of the multiple ways of viewing one landscape. The title ‘Behind The Mask’ immediately resonated with that instinct. Lockdown encourages introversion and it suits my introverted nature but it is not healthy to indulge it and allow the extrovert muscles to wither away. The camera is a crutch that assists me in my engagement with other people, my instinct was that I was loosing my tolerance for social engagement so there was a sense of urgency to re-engage. My confidence was such that I needed to feel valued externally and I will always be grateful for the 2020 Vision Project invitation.

What it has been like to be part of this collective?

I am by default an introvert, so whilst I find being around others vital there is a price in terms of the emotional energy it expels. Being part of a collective and reading other artist’s and photographer’s stories reminds me how we all feel very similarly about our work and how we all take it deeply seriously and personally. The collective is a positive challenge to the issues that accompany working alone as ruler of my own little universe, it reminds me that I am part of something and I am not alone.

Soho Radio - Soho Hour with Claire Lynch

Have a listen to this insightful show with radio presenter Claire Lynch as healthcare workers, Dr Natalie Millar and Dr Dana Beale along with Cat and Maggie, answer questions about the helping homeless through the pandemic and they also respond to Richard's photos live on air on Soho Radio!

Tribute through Visual Stories

Being part of this tribute made Dr. Dana Beale feel “deeply honoured and very emotional”. She went on to say, “It brought back that swell of pride hearing those first claps ringing out across London, when we were still so unsure of what the next days and weeks would bring, feeling brave, scared and anxious all at once. Thank you for enabling me to be part of this tribute.”

Each of the ‘behind the mask’ 2020 Vision Project portraits, reflect our healthcare workers’ dedication, resilience, courage and teamwork throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to highlight more stories in 2021. We will uncover the uniqueness in each person and each talented visual storyteller, as we work towards more exhibitions of these beautiful validating portraits.

The 2020 Vision Project is a collective of talented UK portrait photographers and visual storytellers. Each share their creative vision towards a visual commemoration of healthcare workers nationwide.

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