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Now more than ever, we’ve come to lean on human connections. While interacting and communicating with others has gotten a little more challenging recently, it’s still possible — and a necessity. For medical professionals, communication is just one of the ways to connect with patients through their personal protective equipment. PPE isn’t enough to mask smiling faces and a genuine connection with those in need.

As all eyes turn to the work going on at the frontlines, one physician assistant has focused her attention on the faces of the incredible workers on the frontlines.

The Faces Behind the Masks

Cecile Hollinshead is a physician assistant for the adult and pediatric departments of Emergency Medicine at the University of Michigan. Throughout the past few months, she saw firsthand the changes taking place — from new daily protocol to the amount of PPE they now wear. With a majority of their bodies and faces covered up, eye contact and non-verbal communication suddenly became more important than ever: not only to connect with patients, but to identify her own colleagues.

“At first it was legitimately difficult to tell who a person was because you could only see their eyes. We learned just how much you usually use the rest of the face to communicate, and we had to start really focusing on each other’s eyes and making much more eye contact to communicate with each other.”

Wanting to encourage and uplift her coworkers, Cecile decided to capture, mark, and remember this time in her colleagues’ lives the best way she knew how: through photography.

Inspired by a mosaic image in her local YMCA, she decided to give creating mosaic images of her team a try.

“My initial plan was only one day. So I took 64 pictures and made the first batch of photos.”

For each photograph, each mosaic is not just an overlay that’s been cut and pasted. The layout of the mosaic is modified and personalized. Each square is individually adjusted and a mood is created for each person. They also see smaller versions of themselves in their photograph.

“When I was initially taking the photos my colleagues would ask me, “Do you want me to smile or do you want me to…?” I told them, “It’s whatever you feel right now. Just be yourself.”

And that’s what I’ve tried to capture. Some of the nurses I know, they’re just smiling, and through their eyes they’re still smiling through all this.

And some nurses are like, “Oh, I really don’t want my photograph taken, but your photograph means so much to me because it shows all my wrinkles and I didn’t prepare to have my eye makeup.”

And that’s the purity about the project. It’s raw and it’s who my coworkers are. And I think, to them, it meant so much more.”

Her photos were received positively not only by her department, but by their friends and family across the nation. Many coworkers plan on hanging the pictures in their office — others have loved ones contacting Cecile asking how much it costs to buy a copy.

Cecile is just thrilled to help brighten their days. “Honestly, I had no idea how much people would love these photos. They’re available for free. I did this to bring light and happiness in this time of darkness.”

After completing her first batch, she’s continued to take photos, with many of her colleagues requesting that their photo be included. So far she’s taken nearly 300 from her two departments. One of the images will even be used on an upcoming cover of the monthly Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Making Photography Accessible

An immigrant who came to the US from the Philippines when she was 16, Cecile has just a handful of photographs from her childhood. One day she bought herself a film camera — a Nikon 80 — and started shooting. Although photography seemed to come naturally, she also made it a point to read and learn, watch YouTube videos, and look at inspiration from other photographers to continue pushing herself forward.

One of Cecile’s goals with her photography is making it accessible to everybody. Whether that’s charging significantly less than the competition or taking photos for free, her focus is on capturing the moment and personality of her clients.

There are photographs that I’ve taken that are totally out of focus, but the moment was captured and some of my clients are like, “This is my favorite photograph.” Even though it’s out of focus. This means so much to me and, that, for me, is more rewarding than them paying me.”

Hospitals across the nation have reached out to Cecile and asked her how to create their own mosaic photographs. Cecile assures them she cannot patent the idea, and that they can learn how to create similar images from YouTube.

A magical thing about photography is that each photographer sees things differently. Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, for example, created similar mosaic photos of their staff, but the end product had its own flair. “It’s night and day. So people are showing me the pictures of what Henry Ford has done compared to mine. There’s just a major difference,” says Cecile.

“When you see that people are helping each other, I think that’s the hope that I see overall.”

A Community of Gratitude and Hope

A lot of people are donating food to the ER, or giving to their favorite charity or charity of their choice. All of these are great ideas. However you’d like to express your gratitude to those hard at work right now, Cecile says, “saying thank you is plenty enough for me.”

She also requests that this gratitude and appreciation be shown to medical workers — especially those in the ER — on a regular basis. Not just during difficult times. Working in the ER can be stressful, but this is one thing that makes their hard work a little bit easier.

While it can be easy to get overwhelmed by everything going on right now, it’s important to remember that everybody is in this together.

We have the same goals of keeping everybody safe and healthy. And I think when you see that people are helping each other, I think that’s the hope that I see overall.”

We’re so inspired and encouraged by Cecile’s work. It’s heartening to hear stories like this. We hope it brightened your day as much as it did for the entire Fracture team: we couldn’t stop talking about this story when we heard about it. Words cannot express enough gratitude and appreciation to everyone on the frontlines right now.

Thank you again to Cecile for sharing her story with us and for creating these incredible images — and our most sincere and unwavering thanks to all of the hard workers on the frontlines right now.

You can check out this whole collection by Cecile right here.

You could also read about the mind-bending photography of Anthony Schmidt.

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The Author

Emily Morita

Emily Morita

Emily is a Senior Copywriting Specialist at Fracture. When she’s not traveling — or dreaming of traveling — you can find her reading at the beach. She’s a fan of musicals, talking in the third person, and Oxford commas.