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Rankin’s powerful portraits of NHS frontline staff

Rebecca Wallersteiner interviews the renowned photographer, Rankin, who has previously shot the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and the Queen on his powerful new portraits of NHS frontline staff to mark the 72nd NHS Anniversary

In a mark of respect and thanks to the NHS, the renowned photographer Rankin, who has previously shot the Rolling Stones, Kate Moss and the Queen took portraits of 12 frontline NHS staff who played a vital role in the UK’s response to COVID-19. These portraits have been displayed across the country at bus stops, roadside billboards and iconic pedestrian areas including the world-famous Piccadilly Lights in central London this week to mark the 72nd anniversary of the NHS.

“As the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, I was moved by the incredible efforts of people across the NHS and I wanted to document who they are and their role in fighting this disease. Taking a portrait is a unique and intimate experience, even with social distancing in place. Everyone had their own inspiring story which to them was just doing their job. I hope these images portray the resilience and courage they show every day in the face of real adversity,” the Scottish-born photographer Rankin tells me. Those photographed include an ICU consultant, a COVID-19 critical care nurse, a midwife, a psychiatrist, a hospital porter, a COVID-19 ward cleaner, a paramedic, a GP, a pharmacist, a district nurse, a 111 call centre worker, and a Chief Information Officer. All have played a vital role in managing the response to COVID-19 and supporting people impacted by the disease.

Photos were taken across four UK locations with reduced crew. The shoot incorporated social distancing measures in accordance with NHS and government guidelines.

Dr Farzana Hussain, a GP at Project Surgery, Newham, said about her participation in Rankin’s project: “It’s difficult to put into words how privileged I feel to be able to go to work every day and make a difference to people’s lives and to help battle this global pandemic. Now more than ever, it’s important that we see the humanity that makes up our GP practices, community services and hospitals. Every member of staff has their own story, fears and hopes for the future. I think Rankin’s photography brings this out really well.”

Another participant, Sarah Jensen, Chief Information Officer, Barts Health NHS Trust said: “I was very surprised and flattered to be chosen – to be at the forefront of the coronavirus story was not something I was expecting. I feel privileged to be representing my profession, as working for the NHS provides such a rewarding career.”

As he is softly spoken, friendly and relaxed, it becomes apparent why people feel sufficiently at ease to enable Rankin to snap them in unguarded moments. He creates images which startle with their honesty, capturing something in his subject that no one has ever seen before – closer to portrait painting than photography.

Alongside each portrait, NHS staff have shared their own personal stories from the frontline, providing a unique and touching insight into the lives of the people who are battling this pandemic and saving lives. The participants have been photographed unhidden by PPE, to reveal the people behind the masks and celebrate the individuals they are.

Born John Rankin Waddell, Rankin was raised in Glasgow, until his father’s job took the family to Yorkshire. He was 15 when he first travelled abroad. “My parents had no desire to leave England, although the family holidayed all over the country – at the seaside in Scarborough, Yorkshire, Cornwall, Scotland and the Lake District,” he remembers. He inherited his industrious work ethic from his Scottish parents, who were in his words, “unimpressed by celebrity” and brought him up to question everything.

Photography wasn’t Rankin’s immediate choice for a career, as he first studied accountancy at Brighton Polytechnic but soon decided it wasn’t for him. He noticed the “art students having a more interesting time.” “I had a friend back in my hometown studying photography and he lent me his camera. I knew the moment I picked it up that it was what I wanted to do,” recalls Rankin. He decided to move to London to study photography. “It was during my year in Brighton that I first started taking pictures. I fell in love with the town, especially the glorious light and how it changes so rapidly, providing the viewer with a spectacular theatre of light.”

At the London College of Printing, Rankin met Jefferson Hack, with whom he forged a working partnership and in 1992 they launched the cult magazine Dazed & Confused. Rankin shot to fame and went on to snap royalty, rock stars, Hollywood actors, presidents and prime ministers who queued to be photographed by him, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whose smiling portrait helped him lose his image as a dour, anxious Scot. However, Rankin found the usually charming Tony Blair “distant” and made him look devilish.

‘Who are his main influences?’ “Apart from David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Cecil Beaton and lots of portrait photographers, I’m a great admirer of Andy Warhol and Malcolm McLaren who kept control of their own media. I met McLaren around four times and regret not photographing him.” Another great inspiration was Rankin’s late father. “I have my dad to thank for my love of films. Although my parents weren’t cultured he encouraged me to watch the classics,” remembers Rankin. “I used to sit in the back of the family car and imagine the window as a screen, and the outside world whizzing by as my own version of cinema, before I owned a camera.”

Fearless behind the lens Rankin’s lens captures the essence of his subjects, whether they are a Rock star, or NHS doctor, nurse or cleaner. He has worked with several charities including Oxfam and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. All portraits are being donated by Rankin to the NHS as an ongoing legacy for years to come

Rebecca Wallersteiner
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