Hospital on Wheels In «Diagnosis,» Emile Ducke photographs unusual health care in the Russian hinterland.
Emile Ducke moved to Tomsk, Siberia, in 2016 for his semester abroad. When he heard about «the Saint Luke» hospital train, the student from Hanover was immediately enthusiastic. Ten times a year, the train travels through Siberia on different routes, providing medical care to the rural population.
But there is a catch for the photographer from Germany: getting a photo permit for the train is virtually impossible in faraway Siberia. «In Russia, everything goes through Moscow,» he notes. When, after a long wait, someone from the capital finally contacts Emile, lengthy negotiations ensue regarding his length of stay on the train. In the end, he is granted nine days.
A fellow student from Tomsk accompanies him and helps him translate. The two are assigned a sleeping compartment in the train’s X-ray car. This initially worries the photographer – he packed an analog medium format camera. Emile fears the rays could destroy the images on the films. But someone reassures him that the train is well enough insulated.
During the journey, Emile adapts his daily routine to the train. He wakes up in the early morning hours every day. Next, he knocks on the compartment of his wagon master, the «Provodnitsa.» She has to unlock the door for him to go outside. The fact that her guest doesn’t protect his hands while taking pictures despite the icy cold doesn’t please her at all. One morning, she proudly holds out two brand-new gloves to him: «I knitted them all night,» she says. She left out the fingertips so Emile could operate his camera.
Outside the train, Emile Ducke approaches the waiting patients and asks if he can take pictures during their appointments. Most of them allow it. After nine days, he travels the route backwards again and visits the people at home. They welcome him warmly and many families let him stay overnight. It is an intense time for Emile: he learns to build bridges with his protagonists and establish honest contact. «People wait a very long time for a doctor’s appointment on the train. It’s not natural for them to let a stranger take photos while they’re doing it,» the photographer said.
With his work from Siberia, Emile Ducke manages to build a profile as a photographer of remote places. He wins the VGH prize and the n-ost reportage prize. His images appear in international publications such as the Washington Post, National Geographic, and Der Spiegel. For the New York Times, he travels repeatedly through Russia and Eastern Europe. In 2021, he becomes a member of the Ostkreuz photo agency in Berlin.
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