He Gets the Picture
Though officially retired, Kareem remains a Hopkins fixture.
Photo by KEITH WELLER
In the four decades he’s spent training his lens on every aspect of life here, Medicine’s unofficial dean of photography has captured the hearts of students, faculty, and administrators.
To those familiar with the exacting precision and dedication of Zuhair Kareem, the former chief of medical photography at Johns Hopkins and the hospital’s unofficial dean of photography for more than three decades, it will come as no surprise that he still owns the first camera he ever bought. It’s a German-made Rollop, a two-and-a-quarter-inch lens reflex model, acquired in his hometown of Baghdad, Iraq, in the early 1950s when he was still in high school.
That camera is a distant ancestor of the multi-megapixel digital models Kareem uses today as he continues to capture images at Johns Hopkins. “I made myself learn the new technology,” he says today with a smile. “You have to have the energy to learn new things. I learn something every day.”
The evolution of photography closely parallels Kareem’s own evolution. He’s gone from a young, eager medical photo student from Iraq who arrived in Baltimore in 1966 to a legendary and beloved icon always found roaming the halls and buildings of the Hopkins Medical Institutions (or blocking traffic on Monument Street to set up a ladder to get just the right shot). “We who have been fortunate enough to work with him are so fond of him,” says Ronald R. Peterson, president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, who arrived at Homewood as a freshman the same year Kareem came to Baltimore. “He has this glimmer as a photographer that just makes you smile, but he’s also a perfectionist. He’s a real Hopkins character, in the best sense of the word.”
In addition to decades spent photographing patients and surgeries, Kareem has shot nearly every aspect of life at Johns Hopkins, from the physician and administration portraits found lining the hallways of the hospital to the depths of the institution’s basement. “I’ve been everywhere, from the inside of the Dome to three levels underground,” Kareem explains. “No two jobs are alike. I look for challenges; they stimulate me.”
Kareem’s career at Hopkins began with his instruction in the art of medical photography from the legendary Chester Reather, who was one of the field’s modern pioneers in technique, equipment, and procedure. In the days before pocket-sized high definition cameras and magnetic resonance imaging, medical photographers (both still and motion picture) were critical to physicians for their ability to capture and record the progress of a patient or a new procedure. Kareem’s photos became part of textbooks, journal submissions, and the medical canon; his name (along with heartfelt thanks) appears in a vast number of “Acknowledgments” sections of medical publications by Hopkins physicians.
“There is something special about this place,” he says. “It’s inspiring. And it has to do with the extraordinary colleagues I was able to work with.”
“I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to talk about Zuhair!” laughs William Baumgartner, director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory and vice dean of clinical affairs—who remembers that he was first photographed by Kareem back in the summer of 1983. “One of the core values at Hopkins is clinical excellence, but it should be broadened to excellence in general. He really is one of those people who strives to be the best he can be. Zuhair is the ultimate gentleman, who can be forceful in a very nice way. He’s kind of like a friendly drill sergeant. He can get 60 physicians together for a photo, which is like herding cats.”
It was as a student at Baghdad University that Kareem came upon the idea that would end up guiding him from Iraq to America, to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, and for a career that continues today, four years after his official retirement. He roomed with several students at the university’s School of Medicine, and was drawn to their anatomical textbooks. “I was fascinated with the human body,” Kareem says, “and I realized what I could do if I combined both photography and my interest in the medical field.”
After working in the Baghdad University School of Medicine’s department of medical photography (which he started), he decided to get a degree in medical photography: that choice led him to apply to (and be accepted by) what was known as the Department of Photographic Services at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Confident and determined to succeed in his new endeavor, Kareem came to America on a one-way plane ticket, with $800 in his pocket and a promised slot at Hopkins (there’s a small mention of the imminent arrival of, as his sponsor Chester Reather put it, “a photographer from Iraq who is coming to improve his technique” in the May/June 1966 issue of Dome). Kareem’s debut in Baltimore was somewhat understated: He arrived, after more than an hour’s drive, via a bus he’d boarded at the Dulles International Airport. As he wasn’t entirely sure where to go, he approached a Baltimore City Police squad car and asked for directions, handing the officers the slip of paper with the address of Johns Hopkins Hospital. (“We’ll take you there,” said the cops, who eventually did, after their mistaken detour to Homewood.)
Kareem would spend the next 43 years at Johns Hopkins, and a more fortuitous span would have been hard to pick. “I came at the perfect time,” he says, referring to the long list of medical advances made at the hospital during his tenure—advances he witnessed with his own eyes and lenses. He was there with his cameras recording innovations like the first implantable defibrillator (1980); 17 years later, he covered the entire 22-hour separation of the Banda conjoined twins (1997). “When I follow a patient from the beginning, someone who then goes through a kidney transplant and is well, those are the sorts of things that really mean something,” he explains of his work, which can remain in-house for research or be used for external media outlets.
Though he officially retired in 2005, Kareem is still a fixture at Johns Hopkins, photographing people, events, and ceremonies (including graduations, which last May counted Ronald Peterson’s daughter, Susie, among the new MDs.). At a surprisingly youthful-looking 73, Kareem still possesses an intense focus that’s tempered with the joy of a man who has been able to pursue his life’s work with no constraints. He works slightly less often than he used to, but no less hard than he did the day he began his journey from Baghdad to Baltimore. “I have the same feeling from then until now,” he says. “I love my profession.”