Look at Me!

Children rolling down grassy bank for Look at Me project, photo Karen Hitchlock

‘Look at Me!’ is a photographic project organised by ArtCare, to give a voice to families in the process of cleft lip and palate corrective surgery. Approximately one in seven hundred children is born with a separation in the upper lip (cleft lip) or in the roof of the mouth (cleft palate). Children with cleft lip or palate may also have problems with their teeth, hearing, speech and their psychological development as they grow up. Professional medical teams such as at Salisbury are able to correct the cleft lip or palate in most cases. Nevertheless, the surgery and treatment has a considerable impact on patients’ and parents’ lives over an extended period.

Medical progress has been faster than understanding the experience of patients and parents, in particular understanding how they can be best supported. 'Look at Me!' explores the varied and unique stories from families using the Spires Cleft Lip and Palate Service based at Salisbury District Hospital. Funded by grants from The Wellcome Trust, The League of Friends of Salisbury Hospital and The Wessex Rehabilitation Foundation Trust Fund, this project aims to build a platform for parents and children to express their needs and emotions in creative ways. The photographic portraits and accompanying short narratives add human dimension to medical progress, and will be used to bring these aspects of cleft lip or palate reconstruction to the attention of a wider audience, medical as well as the general public. The photographs are distinctly portraits – they do not aim to document the condition or scars, but instead to portray the children and families for whom growing up has become ‘a different experience’.

ArtCare’s Penny Robbins created and managed the ‘Look at Me!’ project which culminated in a published book, website and touring exhibition. The exhibition opened on September 24th with staff, families and health care professionals from other hospitals gathering here at Salisbury. After a presentation, by the project team, ArtCare guided guests through the exhibition spaces showing family portraits and science-based panels about the cleft lip/palate condition. The family series capture moments, emotions and character rather than just appearance, and gives a rounded view of the journey and experiences shared by families using the Cleft service.

Penny says, ‘The initial idea was born of the fact that as patients use the NHS over time their medical notes grow as a record of events. But medical notes don't capture the whole picture. What else can't we see? Using Medical Photography for Cleft Lip & Palate treatment means surgeons can see what they need to repair. These images are an essential clinical tool, but they are not always helpful for families coming to terms with the diagnosis and treatment that follows. Could the NHS offer more?’

The project got underway with writer Rose Flint and photographer Karen Hitchlock meeting families who told their stories. These were then brought to life in word and family portraits, which give a deeper insight into the lives of people sharing a common theme. The multi-disciplinary Spires team strive to deliver the best possible clinical care for the 2,000 people they see each year - by definition it's focused on the patient. ArtCare and the Spires team planned this project with the aim of illuminating the experience of whole families and so we took a creative approach to finding out more. For more details see the ‘Look at Me!’ website.