Not many people will become a successful emergency physician. Even fewer will become a world-famous photographer and explorer. Jeff Gusky, MD ’82, has done it all.
“I’ve had two separate career paths for 25 years,” says Gusky, an emergency physician and photographer for National Geographic whose images of hidden worlds frozen in time have gained worldwide attention.
Adopting a mindset of discovery
Gusky’s career as a photographer began in Poland. “I stumbled onto this hidden world of the Holocaust,” says Gusky, who documented destroyed Jewish civilizations in his book “Silent Places: Landscapes of Jewish Life and Loss in Eastern Europe.”
That was the beginning of a series of discoveries that Gusky would make, captured from behind his camera lens, which shed new light on past events.
His latest discovery also happened almost by accident. While in France, in 2012, Gusky befriended local farmers who revealed a vast network of underground cities along the Western Front during World War I. “One city spans 25 miles underground in one place. Another WWI underground city was home to 24,000 soldiers and had a 700-bed hospital,” says Gusky.
He learned how to photograph in total darkness underground in order to document the artifacts, words and art etched into the walls. These images — featured in the 18-month exhibition “Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War” at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum — are voices from the past that carry powerful messages we can learn from today, he says.
In the midst of this project, Gusky made another discovery of historical importance. Beneath a farm located on the former front line of WWI, Gusky found the only surviving trace of an African American Combat Unit — the underground command post of the 370th Infantry, nicknamed The Black Devils. They were the only all African American unit in the U.S. Military during WWI. Gusky tells this story in the current exhibit “We Return Fighting” at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which highlights the role of African American soldiers during WWI.
Even as a medical student, Gusky says he felt driven to explore the world. It’s why he chose to study medicine at the UW School of Medicine and why he requested to do his first year of medical school in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of his WWAMI training — UW School of Medicine’s multi-state medical education program.
“I’ve always loved adventure. The strength of that experience in Alaska really influenced everything that would happen,” says Gusky. “It’s about frontiers and exploring and staying on the edge of discovery.”
At the intersection of art and medicine
Between medicine, travel, photography and the speaking circuit, Gusky doesn’t have much time. Nevertheless, he still enjoys both of his careers and continues to practice as an emergency room physician in the Dallas area and to travel the world as a speaker for the National Geographic Speakers Bureau.
In fact, Gusky sees many points of connection between the worlds of medicine and art; both, he says, inspire feelings of passion and altruism. “Being a doctor is very much like being an artist where you just devote yourself unselfishly to a mission,” he says.
Moreover, Gusky sees his primary responsibility as a doctor to inform the public about danger and how to avoid it, which is not unlike his mission as an artist. His photographs relay messages from the past about what it means to be human and to be vulnerable — messages that are as relevant now as ever.
“During World War I, when the earth’s surface became completely dehumanized, soldiers created a human world underground and covered the walls with art and hand-written messages that show us the only thing that really matters is what is human,” says Gusky, who believes this message is especially relevant in the emergency room. “In the ER we love technology, but human beings always come first.”
To see more of Dr. Gusky’s work, visit his website.