In May of this year, Milan-based photographer, videographer, and visual storyteller Roberto Morelli visited Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, with Italian charity Mission Bambini Foundation and their “Children Heart” program. The non-profit organization helps save children with congenital heart diseases in developing countries worldwide.
Despite the substantial cultural and language barriers, these Italian doctors’ extraordinary humanitarian efforts are saving vulnerable children’s lives and making concerted efforts to include the local community.
The pediatric cardiac mission is a cause close to Roberto’s heart, who has, in fact, been collaborating with the foundation for over a decade, covering several stories for them.
My photographic style shows painful situations without falling into the pathetic or sensational. Telling big problems and challenges with a smile, invariably showing the solutions.
With the use of 360° cameras, documentary, and immersive video, Roberto aimed to create an immersive viewing experience that was unflinching and eye-opening to a part of the world that is regularly overlooked.
The main goal of documenting the mission was to support the fundraising of the vital “Children’s Heart” project. The shooting with the 360° cameras, documentary and the immersive video aimed to involve the audience to present them with a more realistic and insightful firsthand experience of what healthcare professionals experience daily.
Furthermore, to the still shots, the video component provided a much more insightful and thought-provoking perspicacity of the doctor’s work and the skill and mastery that goes into every operation.
While the process of graphic narration is nothing new to Roberto, the intensity of working in a fast-paced, chaotic setting such as an under-resourced hospital, among sick children, their families, and dedicated workers, was a remarkable experience for him.
A very intense week saw me by the doctor’s side 11 hours a day. I followed them during the screening, in the operating room during surgery, in the intensive care unit, and in the cardiac ward. I had the privilege of meeting extraordinary people who, purely as a volunteer, use their holidays to operate on children with heart disease worldwide. I met the children and their parents. Collecting their voices of hopes and fears for the future was a true honor. And also immense gratitude and joy once their babies were out of the operating room.
With Roberto being present for the day-to-day processes of the hospital, he used his natural discretion and experience to not over-intrude in the staff members’ everyday tasks. Instead, he was observant without interfering to allow the most authentic moments to transpire from an appropriate distance. Moreover, to not affect the doctor’s vital duties.
Entrusted with gaining exclusive access to such an essential setting and practices, Roberto ensured he built a healthy trust and respect with all staff members, patients, and their loved ones to guarantee he captured the most uninhibited and tender moments authentically.
There was great energy and synergy with the whole team during medical activities and moments of rest. I was the classic “one-man band”! I had to take care of video and photo shoots and organize 360° video shooting at different times. Fortunately, I was able to organize the shooting in agreement with the accommodating medical team, having the possibility of following various surgical operations.
Usually, hospitals are rife with equipment and machinery, making for a cluttered set. Yet Roberto still managed to focus on the subject and make the individuals the focal point with the intense stare between patient and caregiver giving the shot such profundity and attentiveness. The apparatus is subtly used as a heartbreaking yet powerful background component to the story.
When shooting in such a distressing environment and with such heart-wrenching subjects as sick children, Roberto put his emotions aside to stay calm and collected to capture decisive moments without disrupting operations or damaging costly medical equipment.
Seeing a child’s heart beating in his small chest is incredibly powerful and exciting. During the shooting in the operating room, I was so focused on what was happening to capture the moments that I put aside my emotions. I was especially mindful of how to move around the doctors, careful not to disrupt them.
This striking shot of a child’s heart mid-operation is a captivating showcase of the fragility of life and the delicacy of the hand of the skilled doctors. Roberto’s masterful use of the surgical lights and the darkness of the surgical room accentuates the subject and the life-saving operation. He uses the surgeon’s equipment to dramatic effect, which provides a dynamic contrast in the image and takes away the imbrued nature of the procedure.
In approaching children and their parents, I have always used the most straightforward weapon. A smile and human contact.
Photographing and videoing in such a consequential, life-or-death environment as Mulago Hospital proved to be a complex task for Roberto. Mindful of the delicate conditions, fast-paced surroundings, and emotionally charged atmosphere, he had to go with the flow and embrace uncertainty to get the images he needed.
The main challenge was the speed of the actions I had to follow. Nothing could be organized except interviews. Everything else was live. I had to adapt to various situations on the fly. Studying them first, understanding what was happening in the operating room and the intensive care unit by talking with the medical team. But often, I had to predict what was happening and adapt quickly using my own rationale.
You learn to manage the events that happen around you. You learn to relate to strangers and learn about their habits and ways of life. I learned to be amazed by the will to live of these children who, only one day after heart surgery, were sitting on the bed and eating. This filled me with so much empathy and joy. At the end of the shooting, I thought of my daughter, Sofia. And how lucky she is to be born in a country that guarantees her many privileges that other children sadly do not have.
The resulting images from the project exhibit intimate depictions of emotionally charged moments in the medical field and the people who have volunteered their free time to help others. From touching moments between families, doctors, and patients, to restorative surgical procedures or even the more ordinary staff meetings. The raw documentary-style approach to the images and the personal, enlightening nature of the immersive video and documentary work together to tell an exhilarating story.
Each photo possesses a special glimpse into the lives of the people being pictured that evokes a sincere curiosity to know more, pure compassion for the poor children and a much-needed dose of gratitude for how fragile life can be. And most importantly, shed light on a corner of the planet frequently neglected by the rest of the world.
This project allowed Roberto to showcase his documentary work. And he would love to continue this in future projects and bring more heartening stories to life.
We should know more about the work of these extraordinary people who lend their time and professionalism to others with nothing in return except the great satisfaction of having saved a life. There is still good news in this world, and I want to show it!
See more of Roberto’s work on his website.