Artist Q&A: Charlie Waite

Through the CW+ Arts in Health programme, we work with a diverse range of health technology partners as well as renowned and emerging artists, architects and designers to improve the patient environment and experience in the Trusts hospitals. Research has shown that incorporating elements of nature into healthcare environments can improve healing, and this is particularly important in critical care.

As part of the extensive renovations to create a state-of-the-art Adult Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and our work to improve the physical and psychological needs of intensive care patients and their families, we have installed four, bespoke, light-emitting Nature Photography Displays by British landscape photographer Charlie Waite. Here, he shares a valuable insight into how art and the physical environment play an important role in patient, family and staff wellbeing.

Q. How did you first get into landscape photography?

I was always interested in the theatre, and so when I left school, I got some work at Salisbury Playhouse near where I lived and worked as an assistant stage manager. What I remember was the lighting – lighting is an immensely powerful device in theatre, not just to illuminate a place, but to inspire people and to uplift people.

The set, and the way it is lit, has governed the nature of my photography. After about ten years in theatre, I found myself getting a very, very lucky break when the owner of a house I was looking at asked me what I did, and I said I was a landscape photographer. I managed to show him a couple of my photographs and, unbelievably, he was the director of the Illustrated Books department at Weidenfeld & Nicolson. And my life changed direction from there.

Q. Why did you choose to collaborate with CW+?

Out of the blue, a neurosurgeon called Henry Marsh got in touch with me to choose some photographs to put in his hospital. He introduced me to Roger Ulrich, who researches into how people respond to art in hospitals, and that inspired me to research further into nature, and how people have an innate need to affiliate with it – this led to me setting up Nature Works For Health.

When I met Trystan Hawkins from CW+ at the Landscape Photographer of the Year exhibition at Paddington Station, we discussed working together and getting some backlit images at Chelsea and Westminster. Together with the ICU team, we selected the images that staff felt were appropriate for the area and that would spark a positive reaction from patients and visitors.

Q. How do you think the arts can help patients and staff in healthcare settings?

I think everyone reacts to art in a different way. For me, my displays aren’t really artworks, but a way of displaying nature – nature-works. But I think they have the same effect as artworks – we’re all running on so many different tracks now, with so much technology all around us. When you start focusing on a butterfly or thinking about a seed that will grow into a tree over 300 years – that is levelling. I think that patients, and people in hospital who are going through a deeply distressing life experience, can get a little bit of a lift and feel better from looking at nature, and engaging with the beauty in it.

Q. What do you hope staff and patients at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital take away from your displays?

I love to think of an individual looking at my nature displays and feeling safe, and hopeful. I have no idea what each person’s response will be, but I hope that they will be positive, human responses. I’m always looking out to photograph things that I believe will inspire people to feel – whether it’s feeling content, or even just getting rid of stress. If I can transport people when they look at one of these photographs, if they can feel they are in the same place where I stood and feel some of what I felt, then I’m happy.

Find out more about the CW+ Arts in Health programme here.