Last November, PicMonkey launched our PicMonkey college scholarship contest, in which we asked high school seniors to tell us what moves them to take photos and what those photos mean to them. We received hundreds of applicants and are pleased to announce our winner: Liam McGill! His essay shows a deep appreciation for photography; its ability to freeze time and its expansive potential as a tool for human connection. Liam is a New Jersey native who will attend Harvard University in the fall, where he intends to study human evolutionary biology. He spends his free time learning languages, traveling, working at Starbucks and playing the Scottish snare drum. His essay, below, answers the question: “Share a moment you wish you had a photograph to remember. What would that picture have captured? Take us back through time and frame it for us.”
We had already gotten off the makeshift bus and unloaded the bags of lidocaine, more commonly referred to as novocain, sutures, surgical masks, and dental tools. We made up trays of mirrors, forceps, elevators, syringes, and tweezers. The sweat stains on our scrubs were just beginning to form, but Helios and his chariot had only begun to pull the hot, Guatemalan sun atop us; there was much more heat and radiation in store. I had taken pictures up to this point, but now my hands were otherwise occupied.
“Abre por fa’” I told a young Guatemalan child, no older than seven, whose upper canines needed extraction. His mother translated from Spanish to Mayan, and the boy opened his mouth. In the three days before this moment, I had watched as Cheryl, the dentist for whom I was assisting and translating, pull over a hundred teeth, and she must have thought that was enough dental training because she turned to me and said, “you wanna’ try?” I certainly did. We changed positions and I reached over to the tray. I swatted my hand and the flies flew away, I picked up scintillating elevator and used it to make the tooth more accessible, and finally, I reached for the forceps. The boy’s face lit up with fear at the sight of the two-armed contraption. Apparently, dental phobia is universal.
If someone had snapped a photograph as I rotated the forceps, following the design of the tooth’s conical root, hearing the “click click click” of the nearly-serrated edges of the forceps, empathizing with the oxymoronic moans of pain and relief of this young boy, and discerning the “pop” of the tooth as it finally came out, I could look back and see a bead of sweat running off the bottom of my surgical glasses as I walked the thin line between creating more suffering and newfound comfort. I could look back and see a small insect near the boy’s mouth and remember the disparity between the conditions for patients where I come from and those for patients in the rural villages of Guatemala. I might look back and see whether or not Cheryl‘s eyes were filled with apprehension or confidence in my ability, and perhaps I would see beads of sweat running down her face, too. The most important thing that I could look back on, though, would be the face of the boy who trusted me enough to allow me to put my hands and foreign instruments made of strange metal in his mouth in the hope that I would help him. I should hope that his facial expression, in contrast with the tears that ran down his formerly-stoic face, would indicate his relief at the moment the source of his pain was finally extracted from his body. The positive and cooperative nature of the human experience is something that we overlook too often, but that is exactly what this picture would have captured.
We wish Liam the best, and hope that the $1,000 he earned for winning the essay contest will serve him well in the days ahead.