U-M Biomedical Photographer Helps Families Heal

By Safiya Merchant   |  The University Record  |  February 25, 2019

Every day at Michigan Medicine’s University Hospital, Lisa Belanger Neal uses a camera to demystify death.

A biomedical photographer for Autopsy & Forensic Services under the Department of Pathology, Neal provides photographic documentation during autopsies for hospitals. She also takes photos for cases evaluated by the medical examiner’s offices in Washtenaw and Livingston counties.

Her photos are used for court cases and death investigations, as well as teaching tools for medical education.

Additionally, Neal’s photos contribute to the research missions of the International Center for Automotive Medicine and the Michigan Legacy Tissue Program, which study crash injuries and cancer tumors, respectively.

Neal previously worked as an ophthalmic biomedical photographer for the Kresge Eye Institute and Henry Ford Health System.

Looking back, she says she fell in love with photography as a journalism student at Oakland University. During her last semester, a friend advised her to take a photography class to broaden her skill set and value as a journalist.

As someone who likes to stay organized, she said the methodical process of photography was appealing.

On a typical day at the University Hospital morgue, the photographer begins her shift checking emails to determine what constituents need services, from burning CDs of images for law enforcement and watermarking images for legal purposes to assisting residents and fellows with presentation and poster images.

A self-described “biomedical curator,” Neal said she is responsible for categorizing and organizing all Autopsy and Forensic Service images.

On average, the morgue conducts three autopsies a day, and Neal takes a variety of photos depending on the case, including those of external and internal body parts.

She said she generally doesn’t get squeamish on the job.

“I always put myself on the other side,” Neal said. “I know why we’re doing an autopsy — we’re trying to help families get answers. It is an honor to play a small role in a family’s healing process.”

Neal said her favorite part of her job is working with medical residents and helping them improve how they take photographs to document their cases.

“I like teaching because it helps me solidify the way that I do things,” she said.

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Neal uses photography as a teaching tool also on her Twitter page, where she engages the broader pathology and medical education communities in discussions about the human body.

For her #WhatIsItWednesday Twitter entries, she posts pictures of gross specimens and ophthalmic photographs and asks her online audience to play along and engage in discussion.

“It’s really nice because many medical education programs don’t have the opportunity to view gross anatomy like this,” she said.

Looking back on her time at the morgue, Neal said the memories that really stand out are the ones where she can directly impact a family during their most difficult times. “Gifting a family a delicate photograph of a hand, footprint or tattoo, it’s nice to be able to offer something that can assist in the grieving process.”