My big, fat photo documentary

October 8, 2010

An 8-month look at obesity in America

Reuters photojournalists work in many different scenarios. You could be working in a 2’ x 2’ assigned space on the red carpet at the Academy Awards with 1,000 other photographers – we call that a set piece event. If you’re on the sidelines of the NFL Super Bowl or the camera platform at the U.S. presidential inauguration you’re on a set piece event.

Another day you might be covering spot news, shooting a hurricane or tornado, a school shooting or a tragedy like the space shuttle crash.

Then, there’s enterprise work which can be the most difficult of all. From the story idea, to getting cooperative subjects and access, to the shooting itself: enterprise journalism is all up to you and using your imagination and creativity. My recently completed project on obesity in America was such a piece.

Carolyn Dawson, bariatric surgery patient looks at her weight reading 296.6 lbs. at her surgeon Dr. Michael Snyder's office in Denver five days before her procedure August 25, 2010.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking Last spring I started looking for an enterprise topic to shoot during the year. I considered covering the economy but we had endless images of unemployment lines, foreclosures, job fairs and poor people devastated by the financial collapse. Frankly, I couldn’t see the need for doing more.

Soon I realized there was another topic that was in nearly every newspaper, magazine and website that we didn’t have much imagery of. “The Epidemic of Obesity” – a term bandied about in the media and vilified by the fat acceptance crowd.

You haven’t heard of fat acceptance? I hadn’t either. More on that later…

The statistics on obesity in the U.S. are astounding – government sources say that in 2009 no U.S. state met the Healthy People 2010 obesity target of 15%. Even in my state of Colorado, which is often the leanest in the nation, over 18% of the population is classified as obese. Mississippi has over 34%. Only Colorado and the District of Columbia have less than 20% and nine states have populations that are over 30% obese. And it’s getting worse.

I have always felt the best way to report on a topic like this is by using individual’s personal stories to illustrate it. I broke it down into sub-topics like childhood obesity, diet and exercise, the “Biggest Loser” TV show phenomenon, bariatric surgery and more. Within each I found people that were willing to let me tell their stories and by doing so, illustrate the overall topic.

Gabi Jones swings in a park during a photo shoot for her website in a suburb of Denver April 12, 2010. Jones (not her real name) weighs 502 pounds and is an advocate of fat acceptance, using her modeling to inspire those who have low self-esteem. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

One of the first people I met in my research was Gabi Jones (not her real name.) Gabi weighs around 500 pounds and is quite happy at that weight. She is an advocate of fat acceptance saying that being heavy doesn’t always mean being unhealthy. She was a great subject to work with, very open to me shooting different aspects of her life, from swimming to nude modeling and getting body painted. Just when you think you’ve seen everything…

Gabi Jones is painted by airbrush artist David Brawner (R) as a piece of "bodyart" in a garage studio in a Denver suburb April 13, 2010.  Jones (not her real name) at 502 pounds is a fat acceptance advocate who says she wanted to be painted "...to push the envelope on what a big person can do and break the molds of what is accepted in society."  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Gabi told me about the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). The NAAFA public relations director Peggy Howell, in an email reply back in April said “maybe you can do something about the headless fatties the media seems to enjoy plastering all over television and newsprint. How about if photographers stop being lazy and get permission to use people’s full images and show them as real people as opposed to disembodied bellies and asses walking down the street? It sure makes it easier to hate someone when you can’t see their face or look them in the eyes, doesn’t it? Any help you can offer fat people in this regard would be greatly appreciated!”

Then Howell turned down my request to cover the NAAFA annual convention. Regarding members of the organization, she said “The thought of seeing their image in a newspaper, magazine or on screen can be very disconcerting to some people.” She was also worried about the images being sold, to a weight loss company for instance, something Reuters would never do. Bottom line, my access was denied.

After generating the idea for an enterprise story, access to subjects is the next toughest nut to crack. These days almost everyone is suspicious of the media. Even well-respected and well known media outlets like Reuters can get people’s radar howling when we ask for access. Add to that the medical aspect of the story and the privacy laws in America and its tough to work a topic like this.

Carolyn Dawson, a bariatric surgery patient takes a pre-operation quiz with Nancy Meishied, R.N. (R) at the Rose Medical Center in Denver, five days before her surgical procedure August 25, 2010.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

But, with persistence I found some great people that understood the value in what I was trying to do. Meetings with hospital public relations and marketing departments, doctors, researchers, surgeons and many others dragged on for months but eventually it all came together. I’d like to thank in particular the PR/marketing departments of The Children’s Hospital and Rose Medical Center, both in the Denver area for their tremendous help on the story.

I never would have expected that I would get permission to be in a hospital operating room fully gowned and shooting from behind a surgical mask. If you haven’t seen a woman’s belly inflated like a beach ball with 5 holes in it as surgeons work their magic with 2 foot long instruments performing a gastric bypass, you will in this story.

Bariatric surgeon Dr. Michael Snyder (R) performs a laparoscopic gastric bypass on Carolyn Dawson at Rose Medical Center in Denver August 30, 2010, while assisted by Surgical Assistant Anthony Cavello at left.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Now that I’ve finished the project, I see the world in a different light – I could literally be covering this topic forever. I now notice obese people wheeling around in the supermarkets more and more on the now-common electric carts the stores provide. At the checkout every magazine has a headline that reads something like “Drop 10 pounds this month!”

Determined not to look like some of my subjects, I joined a fitness club and now might even read that cover story on how to drop the 10 pounds.

I’ll be following up with some of my subjects to add some “after” pictures to the file. Carolyn Dawson, the bariatric surgery patient, hoping to lose 150 pounds, is set for cosmetic surgery to remove the excess skin sometime next year and I’ve been granted access by the surgeons and patient to shoot it.

Bariatric surgery patient Carolyn Dawson laughs at a joke made by her surgeon Dr. Michael Snyder (L) as he examines an incision where a drain had been inserted three weeks after her gastric bypass in Denver September 22, 2010.  Dawson has lost about 30 pounds at the three week point but hoped to lose about 120 more.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Now that should make some interesting enterprise photography. Or not.

View the large format photo story here.

3 comments

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This is the turning point of human evolution facing huge changes in the landscape when machinery replaces our muscles and food chase man for profit.

We were not designed by nature neither to run away from food nor to work when it is not necessary.

I ran two half-marathons during my PhD and I feel that the problem is widespread in all highly educated communities.

Law requires us to cover our bodies but one day it will require us to be fit avoiding a widespread collapse of society since modern life changes our survival capabilities.

Posted by DrSilva | Report as abusive

Amazing pictures, I love that you really opened a different side of the obesity story. I definitely have to ask if the park in the shot of the woman swinging is Webster Lake. I live right behind there. :)

Posted by Kyya | Report as abusive

This isn’t a different side to the obesity story! This is the same crap in a different package. “oh it’s all well and fine but I still don’t want to be fat”. Nothing about how stigmatization of fat plays a role in the fat acceptance movement or how people with medical problems causing weight gain or swelling play into things. Or hell, even fetishists!
I see nothing but the same thing focusing on appearances. As a fat chick this annoys me. I’m not going to apologize for being fat. If you want to do more stories on fat people then you can do a story on me. I don’t care.

Posted by EuricyChan | Report as abusive