(Photo credit: Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer)

In 2014, in the midst of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Los Angeles–based artist Mary Beth Heffernan was struck by images she saw in the media of the protective suits worn by medical staff. She knew that patients were being separated from their families and quarantined, often prohibited from touching or even seeing a human face for weeks at a time, and the frightening appearance of the suits seemed undoubtedly to exacerbate their fear and distress.

“The figures looked otherworldly,” Heffernan says, in an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books editor-in-chief Tom Lutz. “And I thought, what would it be like if you were a patient looking at that?”

Drawing on some of her earlier work with photography and medicine, Heffernan did some research and came up with an interesting solution: why not take pictures of medical workers and affix the photos to the medical workers’ suits? Informed by both her medical research and some trial and error in the field, she eventually pioneered a process of printing closely cropped headshots on disposable adhesive labels, and later saw the process adopted by two medical units in Liberia.

The anecdotal feedback suggests that the intervention worked — patients, many of whom were illiterate and couldn’t read the staffers’ names, could finally sense a human presence taking care of them, and the medical staffers saw visible improvement in their patients.

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More information on Mary Beth Heffernan’s PPE Portrait Project.