August 2018


Outside the OR
It’s all about the eyes … and the light

by Liz Hillman EyeWorld Senior Staff Writer

Source (all): Marc Safran, MD

Ophthalmologist finds passion in expressing emotion with artistic

Marc Safran, MD, Clay Eye Center, Syracuse, New York, had a dark room in high school. He and a friend, both self-taught in photography, would hang out, play rock ’n’ roll music, and process pictures taken with a Nikkormat camera.
“I always thought I had a good eye, but once I got into med school and went that route, I didn’t do much with photography,” the John Hopkins School of Medicine graduate and Princeton University School of Engineering undergrad said.
It wasn’t until about 12 years ago that the now 59-year-old cataract and strabismus specialist heard about digital photography and thought about picking up that type of lens again.
“I immediately saw this big jump in what I could do, and I became immersed in as much learning as possible,” he said, explaining that much of that came from online resources and shooting his family at the time. He later attended studio courses being offered at Syracuse University with the emphasis on lighting in these classes shaping the direction of his artistic work.
“I started thinking about light in a more scientific way after that and understanding the relationship between types of light, proximity of lighting to the subject,” he said, adding that from there his work ramped up. “I was getting high-end looking things from this studio setup.”
Within a year, he went from bribing college students with pizza in exchange for their time as models to paying for studio and equipment time at a local photographers’ gallery. Eventually, Dr. Safran opened his own studio.
“I started pushing myself. I believe in this 10,000 hours thing—the more you work, the better you get. I started shooting as much as I could. … I would go after surgery and on the weekends,” he said.
Dr. Safran’s focus was never on photography as a business, however, always the art of it. As such, he rarely charges subjects for any of his work.
“I decided that to get really cool pictures I’d want to shoot cool subjects, so I started reaching out to people in the art community, actors, dancers, circus performers, models. Whenever anyone would come to Syracuse … I would try to grab them,” Dr. Safran said, adding later that taking money off the table reduced the stress on subjects who posed for him, allowing both the model and the photographer to “get into creative spaces that you want.”
Going back to his interests in technical aspects, he emphasized the importance of light in photography. “Images are created by light. There is a beauty to creating light that allows me to make a picture that is dramatic and harsh or soft or angulated or natural looking. There is a science and history to using these different lights,” Dr. Safran said. “I have seven strobes that are on big tripods I can move around, and I know how to use them effectively.
“Much like being in the OR, I can manipulate things and I can see it on my computer and it gives me this creative canvas. It’s like a surgeon going in and saying I want this and I want that. You get to control this technical environment, but in the end, it’s all about the emotion. I like trying to read people’s faces and getting them to relax and trying to see in them something that’s beautiful or telling or sexy or mysterious. That gets to be a puzzle as well as a creative endeavor,” Dr. Safran said.
When Dr. Safran shoots his subjects, many of them already have professional headshots for their job. Often what he’s trying to do with his work is tell a different story.
“That has a lot to do with the eye, which is the irony of the whole thing, thinking about eye contact not so much as an organ of vision but as an organ of communication,” he explained. “People speak with their eyes. How they hold their lids, if they’re looking up at me or down at me, if their eyes are slanted or halfway shut, that communicates a lot to me and to the viewer. I pay attention to where the eyes are in relationship to the camera.”
In addition to working with the subject themselves to get expressive shots, Dr. Safran has brought in other artistic media to his work, namely neon powder and neon paints that glow under ultraviolet lights. He spoke of his mentor, Howard Schatz, MD, a renowned photographer and former retina specialist, who used fluorescein on models.
“He described a technique of dripping fluorescein on people and using blue gelled strobes. I started doing that. … It makes for a hell of a mess, but it’s always visually wild.”
Dr. Safran’s work has been recognized with large format installations at local hospitals and medical practices, by the Irish airline Aer Lingus’ “Wish You Were Here” contest, in a Peace Corp calendar cover in 2016, and with gold and silver medalist awards in 2015, 2016, and 2017 in the Graphis Photography annual competition.
He also displays some of it in his office waiting room, and he thinks that there is a “transference of trust from my eye to [the patient]’s eye.”
“If a patient sees that I’m a good photographer, they think that I’m a good cataract surgeon because if I can see beauty, I can provide them beauty to see,” Dr. Safran said.
Dr. Safran spends about 25 hours a week on this labor of love. He might take 300 pictures in a shoot and if he gets five to six that are good, that’s considered a successful day. But given the time commitment and that he’s only rarely accepted payments or taken commissions for his work, why does he do it?
“It’s exciting to create, and there is part of me that has this creative side. … The more I do, the better I get, and conversely, the better I get, the less I feel like I’m good enough and I want to push myself,” Dr. Safran said.
More of Dr. Safran’s work can be viewed on his website,, or on Instagram at @marcsafranphotography.

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It’s all about the eyes … and the light It’s all about the eyes … and the light
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