September 13, 1999
Volume 52, No. 4
Balaban, Weisman combining the best of many worlds
In the world of academia, most people could imagine aesthetics and scholarship coming together under the rubric of art history or theater, but few could fathom combining, say, psychology and photography, or medicine and writing.
Victor Balaban and his wife Jamie Weisman see things differently. Balaban, a recent Emory PhD graduate in psychology, is a photographer. Weisman, an Emory medical school graduate and now a resident in Emory's dermatology program, is a writer. Together, they keep adding to a growing portfolio of published cross-over collaborations.
Balaban's dissertation, "The Virgin Mary, the Apocalypse and the Internet: A Cognitive Linguistic Study of Discourse at a Marian Apparition Site," connected diverse perspectives. He employed cognitive approaches to psychology, linguistics and anthropology to look at the narratives of pilgrims to Conyers, Ga. His photographs of the site have been published in Atlanta newspapers and magazines and shown in local contemporary art exhibitions. But his audience broadened immeasurably with the publication of the Conyers photographs in the October 1998 issue of Life magazine.
He considers photography an important personal and professional pursuit: "I'm ultimately hoping to create a niche for myself combining academia and photo-journalism. I like to think that the two sides of my work inform each other. I want to use my knowledge of photography and of the social sciences to produce projects that are aesthetic explorations of complex social issues."
Balaban has become very interested in the apocalyptic nature of Marian apparitions. As he begins his postdoctoral studies this month, he will examine the discourse of certain apocalyptic groups as a senior fellow at Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions. "I'll be looking for linguistic markers that might help to identify groups or individual believers who might be at risk for violence and/or suicidal behaviors," he explained.
The expansion of his research interests has opened up opportunities to record on film the activities of millennial religious groups. Balaban recently returned from Peru, where he shot a story for the British Sunday Telegraph about a Peruvian group that is waiting for the return of the Inca Empire in the year 2000. "The photography assignment was a great way for my academic life and my life as a photographer to intersect," he said.
As a writer and physician, Weisman is uniquely positioned to appreciate the intersection of interests-interests that extend to her intimate relationship with congenital immune deficiencies. The young doctor has a multifaceted perspective of medicine; she's been a patient herself since 1991, enduring treatments, giving herself injections and learning to live with a chronic condition.
"I was a writer before I went into medicine," she said. "When I write, I can step back from the daily pressures of medicine and interpret some of the powerful and dramatic moments I experience. I revisit and explore my relationships with my patients and my own feelings as a patient."
In 1998 Emory Magazine published her story, "The Most Important Thing a Doctor Can Know." Weisman's narrative was enhanced by Balaban's photographic description of her experiences as patient and doctor. She has since developed the article into a book proposal and signed a contract with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux publishers to write an autobiographical account of her professional and personal encounters with illness.
Balaban regularly haunts her shift at the hospital, recording visible anecdotes. This fall, their visual and verbal dialogue about Weisman's internship will be featured in Life. The two are just now completing a second project for Life's December issue. This time, the story focuses on the "living-related liver transplants" procedure being performed by Thomas Heffron, Emory transplant surgeon and chief of pediatric liver transplantation at Egleston Children's Hospital. The operation allows a parent to donate part of his or her liver to a sick child.
For writer and photographer, tracking the transplant process has meant visiting the family at home, accompanying the donor and her baby to the doctor's office, witnessing a pair of six-hour surgery procedures, observing recovery and conducting a second home visit.
"The surgical process was fascinating to me," Balaban said. "First, Dr. Heffron operated on the mother at Emory Hospital, removing one-third of her liver. He placed the organ in a cooler, crossed the street to Egleston and, a few hours later, transplanted it into her 1-year old son."
"Doctors are often unaware of the great drama in which they participate," Weisman added. "With Victor's photography and my writing, I hope we can bring some of that drama to a wider audience. And on a more personal note, I like having Victor take pictures in the hospital because I get to see more of him. Eventually, we'll expand our collaborations beyond medical topics. For us, it's the start of a lifetime of combining our lives and our work."