Facebook Pixel Code
About Sickkids
About SickKids

May 19, 2016

The artful eye: An up-close look at the art and science of ophthalmic photography at SickKids

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the pictures taken by medical imaging specialists in the Department of Ophthalmology at SickKids convey much more than artistic expression. These pictures provide answers; answers about the diseases and conditions affecting the eyes of our patients.

Working in Ophthalmology, medical imaging specialists bring together art and science through clinical photography of the eye. This involves taking photos of every corner of the eye, from the surface of the cornea all the way into the depths of the retina. Most of their time is spent in the Eye Clinic, but they also visit operating rooms and various inpatient units across the hospital to perform their craft; using 14 to 15 different cameras specific to the condition and the age of the patient they are photographing.

Leslie MacKeen and Cynthia VandenHoven, Medical Imaging Specialists in Ophthalmology.
Leslie MacKeen and Cynthia VandenHoven, Medical Imaging Specialists in Ophthalmology.

While this role once consisted mostly of documenting conditions and diseases of the eye, medical imaging specialists now play an important part in the diagnosis of a patient’s eye condition.

“The transition from film to digital photography in the early- to mid-2000s has rapidly changed our profession and field,” says Leslie MacKeen, who’s worked as a Medical Imaging Specialist at SickKids for 14 years and has been in the field for 25 years. “We’re no longer developing photos in a dark room or taking photos strictly for documentation purposes. Instead, we provide results to physicians almost immediately after the images are taken. These images play a fundamental role in the diagnosis of a patient’s eye condition.”

Tsunami pupillary membrane, 2015​ - One of the many photos displayed at the exhibit.
Tsunami pupillary membrane, 2015​ - One of the many photos displayed at the exhibit.

In the past, multiple physicians would need to come and look at a patient’s eye, or the physicians themselves would take photos in addition to performing their clinical role. With dedicated medical imaging specialists, physicians can concentrate exclusively on the diagnosis while the medical imaging specialist focuses on capturing high-quality, crystal clear images. These photos can also be used for research purposes or to educate other clinicians on the history and progression of eye conditions during rounds.

When working with younger children, especially neonatal patients, medical imaging specialists use video and then stills from the video footage to portray the eye condition they are filming. This process eases the burden on the patient, who would be required to remain still if photos were being taken.

Cynthia VandenHoven with her photograph.
Cynthia with her favourite piece from the exhibit.

“Photography remains our area of expertise but we have also developed an excellent understanding of the diseases and conditions we take photos of,” explains Cynthia VandenHoven, Medical Imaging Specialist. “This understanding helps us know exactly what to look for when taking photos and create better images for the physicians we work with.”

Taking photos that will help physicians better understand and diagnose eye conditions is paramount for MacKeen and VandenHoven, but artistry will always remain at the core of what they do. Understanding photography fundamentals such as composition and using artistic techniques like juxtaposition creates better images for the physicians to work with, but also leads to beautiful, intriguing photos.

As a result, Leslie and Cynthia decided to participate in this year’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, which displays the work of over 1,500 artists and photographers at more than 200 exhibits across Toronto. Their exhibit, titled 20/20: The Artful Eye, is a collection of images representing 14 different eye diseases and conditions.

Leslie with her favourite piece from the exhibit.
Leslie with her favourite piece from the exhibit.

Located on the third floor lobby of the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning (PGCRL), the exhibit is the only medical exhibit featured in the entire festival. The photos are arranged with images representing the front of the eye first, and then features images of the back of eye and more manipulated images towards the end. Some of the images also include a smaller version that represents how a patient with that particular eye condition would see the photo.

“We’ve participated in photo competitions hosted by the Ophthalmic Photographers’ Society for many years and our images have always placed well, but we’ve never entered into a major photography festival,” says MacKeen. Since May is Vision Health Month, we thought participating in CONTACT would be an excellent way to raise awareness for vision health.”

Staff and members of the public can view the exhibit until May 31 and are also invited to join Leslie for her “Artist Talk” – a discussion of her unique career describing the art and science of photographing the eye, and its role in diagnosis, research, education and vision on Friday, May 20, between 6 and 7 p.m. in Event Room 1 in the PGCRL.