Hospital sketching

March 12, 2013


Today’s post is about the increasingly blurring of photographing and drawing people in public or semi-public places. Is it okay to photograph people in public? And if not, is it sill okay to sketch people in public? If it’s okay today, will it be necessarily okay tomorrow?

I’m always wary of violence in public, especially in a place as violent as Sydney where I live. One can end up with a mouthful of teeth in this city simply by looking at someone. As in other cities, eye-to-eye contact with strangers is potentially a punishable offence.

I knew straight away when I got my sketchbook out in the Emergency Room of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, last week that my act was potentially transgressive. Admittedly, if questioned, I could have shown that I was a defacto ‘artist’, by showing my interrogator pencil sketches done previously in the sketchbook. That may or may not have been enough for me to sketch unhindered.

What was I doing there?  I myself wasn’t sick or admitted to the Hospital at the time, just looking out for someone who was. Because I knew it was going to be a very long wait – the normal wait is around four hours – taking along a sketchbook (as I normally do these days when I leave the house) seemed obligatory. I had no idea what I was going to sketch and I certainly didn’t wake up that morning saying to myself, “Oh goody, I’m going to sketch sick people today and exploit their vulnerability in the process!”

But reading about an urban sketcher in very tolerant England being accosted recently on a train by her fellow passengers about getting the permission of her subject before sketching him has made me think again about the ethical issues of sketching people in public following my little sketching jaunt at the local hospital. Sketching strangers up close on a Sydney train is absolutely a recipe for impending personal violence. Obviously here in hospital I was aware of the people I was sketching; plainly I wasn’t doing what I was doing in order to make them suffer even more than they were. Nor was I sketching out of blind allegiance to that dictum of Urban Sketching which says that you will sketch Life in all its gorey detail, being as true and realistic to the scene as possible. To a certain extent, I was minding my own business, helping myself pass a long uncomfortable time as comfortably as possible, in a way which (for me) was acceptable as reading a glossy magazine or a novel. One of the interns on duty must have twigged I was sketching, but said nothing, probably grateful I was there ‘caring’ for someone sick. Hospitals these days love carers and visitors because it takes a lot of weight off their shoulders.


Ethical issues

Novelists use their friends and relatives in their work so long as they don’t “identify” them too closely, otherwise there’s fallout at either the domestic level or at the legal level in terms of defamation. In the medium of journalism, we have, in this day and age, reporters unethically prying into people’s privacy in order to keep their jobs while their bosses sell the story for commercial gain. Increasingly, there are ethical issues surrounding drawing people in public, just as there with surveillance filming for security purposes. Here, I’ve sketched adults with impunity, in an area which would not have been possible using photography. My sketching would not be possible, for example, with children – someone would have stopped me. All my subjects were distracted by either pain or worry, many sitting stock still. Unlike ordinary people, these ones sat still, either drugged from pain or from medication.

Issues of permission

There was a time when verbal permission to photograph or sketch was okay. It’s only natural and polite and civilised when you’re obviously invading someone else’s space. Now, in this age of litigation, release forms are a reflexive response: for permission to use people’s intellectual property as well as using their image. There are however ambiguities: I can photograph anyone or anything in a public place with more or less impunity. So far, I can also sketch anyone or anything in a public place. A public hospital is moot because the property is private (and of course I would desist if asked by the doctors in the case of the ER). I sketch people as secondary subjects in my streetscapes; I don’t make ‘portraits’ of them as individuals.

People as part of Urban sketching

Buildings and streetscapes have become ‘straightforward’ material for Urban Sketching, while people are increasingly subject to qualification: formal Urban Sketching now excludes poses models, life drawing class sketching, portraits, though it seems to be okay for established urban sketchers to include them in their online work. Contrast this with symposium workshops where sketching people is considered important. There is a sub-genre of sketching people (i.e. portraits) on public transport which somehow slips through the Urban Sketching criterion net because it raises questions about whether the model was “posed” or not. If they sit still, paid or unpaid, in a private setting (e.g. home or studio), this is not okay; if they sit still in a public setting (having given permission or not), this is. I”m not entering in to this debate at all; I work hard at my portrait and figure drawing skills but try and separate (at least in my mind) those sketches from anything I classify as formal “urban sketching”.

Metaphysical questions

Do I stop sketching if my subject has an accident or is in danger? Of course; I’m obliged to be a Good Samaritan and stop what I’m doing if someone is in danger. Some paparazzi photographers might not. Do I stop sketching my subject if s/he is suffering? A moot point. There is nowhere “safer” to be than an Emergency Room, so I know the well-being of my subjects is constantly being monitored.  My subject is not ‘suffering’ or in danger (though they might be screaming with pain), so I keep sketching and those around me ‘look the other way’. If the screaming keeps up, the ER staff eventually wheel them away in order to ‘keep the peace’ in their workarea.

All of us present sought to ignore the screams of pain of those around us. We ignored the screams of pain in order to protect ourselves at a private level. At a public level, there was personally nothing we could do to assuage that pain, since they were being monitored by doctors far more expert than us.

And there’s the issue of public space in hospitals and private space in hospitals. Obviously a public waiting space in a hospital is more acceptable than sketching in a private hospital space such as a ward.

Was sketching people in a hospital waiting room an unacceptable instance of exploiting people’s vulnerability? There are parallels with sketching urban people in distress, for example, homeless people or beggars. In the artistic tradition of Realism (and for example in the area of social justice, where the advertisement to a wider public of injustice is called for), ‘exploiting’ this situation in the name of capturing contemporary tranche de vie urban life is a strong force. Urban sketchers very often feel obliged to repay the honour of sketching a homeless person or beggar with money and certainly I’ve seen the advice of sketching with someone else rather than sketching alone in these situations.


This last sketch raised interesting issues for me. I got tired of sketching while sitting in the same position and unable to move to another seat I ventured outside to the area where the ambulances arrive. I can’t recall ever having drawn an ambulance up close before. The ambulance drivers grew immediately tense – perhaps I looked like a snooping reporter with notebook in hand, a literal “ambulance chaser” – so I switched to the sandstone facade of the historic building and in particular to the blue plastic curtain. No sooner had I started drawing it closed when it was opened, expanded for the admission of an arrival. This “privacy” curtain isn’t just to keep paparazzi at bay; on this occasion, it was an undertaker delivering.

At this point, I was called away – the sketch unfinished – to deal with my own life-and-death reality. That ‘other world’ of sketching would have to be set aside temporarily!

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