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Post-Op: A Compelling Subject

A human guinea pig and photographer shares his experience as a medical study participant through his camera lens.

BY JOSH DICKINSON, AS TOLD TO LESLIE SHIERS

I was 19 when I started participating in medical studies. At first it was just a means of income. A student at the Art Institute of Boston at the time, I took a few photos of myself while undergoing tests. My classmates thought I was onto something, since the images captured not only my “job” but also my life. The project turned into my senior thesis series, “Studied.”

Over the next two years, I took part in about 50 tests at hospitals and labs all over Boston, and whenever it was allowed, I brought along my cameras. Clinicians drew blood and sampled my saliva. They performed EKGs and ran MRIs. I kept my hand in ice water for as long as I could to test my tolerance for pain. I underwent daylong interviews, psychiatric evaluations and comprehension exams.

The worst test involved breathing through a tube, being fed air mixed with carbon dioxide. The administrators were trying to figure out if a person could overcome physical discomfort by being mentally prepared for what was to come. (Usually, they told me what the purposes of their tests were—unless that information might affect my reactions.) It didn’t work for me. I felt like I was drowning.

It was weird to be photographing these experiences—I was not just the researcher’s subject but my own as well. I wanted to get my shot, but I couldn’t ruin their results.

In my favorite photo, I am lying on a hospital bed watching two technicians poke needles into my legs—testing my nerve reactions, I believe. I can remember machines emitting a sound like radio feedback. It was as if the practitioners were trying to locate a station with a weak signal.

Though I wanted the labs to be fancy and high-tech, some had equipment held together with duct tape. But I enjoyed seeing firsthand how advances happen in the medical world and being a part of it. For most of us, research is out of sight, out of mind until there’s a major breakthrough. It’s fascinating to see the process.

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