While I was undergoing training to be a medical doctor, it became quite difficult to receive calls on my mobile phone. As a resident doctor, I’d spend hours working, having no time for myself and family — my mom stopped calling. My phone, originally meant to receive calls, was used as a medical app store. I used it to calculate and determine treatments, to store lab values difficult to recall and also, I used it to know the description of the right antibiotic for any bug.
One day I received a call from Washington, D.C., as evidenced by the area code. I thought to myself, “this call must be important,” so I picked the call and said, “yes?”
“Hey, Max,” the voice boomed from the other end. “It’s Todd,” I remembered Todd James, a photo editor at National Geographic, who I had last spoken to in a decade. “I’ve got a job for you,” he said, in that Oklahoma accent.
Told wanted to cover a story on stem cell research, and wanted me to travel all over the world shooting it. As the conversation with Todd went on, I began to vividly imagine life, always on the go with my camera, having a license to explore. I’d practiced photography for 20 years, but I stopped after realizing that I wanted to have the experience of what I was photographing, not just being the voyeur.
My new path was found when I was on an assignment photographing a neurosurgeon who was performing spine surgery. The patient was in an upright position, his cranium held still by a clamp-like device, with his spinal cord fully stretched, allowing the surgeon a good vantage point for ease of the procedure. One time, she said, “take a picture of this.” What was before I was an exposed spinal cord, I’d seen the skeletal framework many times, but those were artificial, this spinal cord was real, living, white and pristine. It awed me greatly, I felt like an astronaut on an Apollo spacecraft bound for the moon. It occurred to me right then that I wanted to be a medical doctor. I met up with all the superiors I worked for, and specially requested assignments regarding medicine and doctors.
I told Todd I would think about it. Returning to my patients, finishing the rounds, writing copious notes, there I was totally confused. I went into the assistant director’s office that afternoon, he told me of my imminent elective month and that I could spend the month doing research. “This story. It’s research right?”
Immediately, I called Todd. He told me I would shoot in 13 countries, spanning the duration of 23 days. The first shoot was at my very own hospital where I worked, UMass Memorial Medical Center. After that, I left for Europe.
I worked in Berlin, at the former lab of the 19th-century doctor, Rudolf Virchow, who postulated the theory that all cells occur as a result of division by preexisting cells. I created a picture, one that showed the power of a pluripotent stem cell. I stacked pathological specimens to make an abstract human. I got the hair from the head of a stillborn infant, a brain, a distended heart, a liver, bones, and teeth — complete parts of humans that could emanate from a single stem cell.
After a year, now a resident overseeing my own interns, I pondered greatly about what to specialize in. I knew then, that I wanted to make films, to go back to photograph. It dawned on me that I wanted to tell stories. I left medicine to dance to the tune of a different drum, one that resonated with my every being.