Filmmaker Carolyn Jones: “Nurses know more about who we are and what makes us tick than anybody else”

15 May 2020

Photojournalist and filmmaker Carolyn Jones started making films about nurses a decade ago, and now she cannot stop. ICN caught up to her prior to the pandemic as part of the celebrations of the Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The New York-based director-producer found out that nurses are special when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and a nurse helped her through what she felt was an increasingly unbearable situation.

And since then, Ms Jones has been driven to take photographs, tell stories and make films about nurses, who she says have an unflagging dedication to their patients and a level of moral intelligence that never ceases to amaze her.

“My fascination with nurses began with a book called The American Nurse, which I was commissioned to do to celebrate nursing. At the time I didn’t know much about nursing at all: I’d had a great nurse once, and I was indebted to her, so, being asked to do a project about nursing gave me an opportunity to dig into the profession, and I found it really compelling.

‘And quite simply, I have not been able to let go. I am consistently fascinated with who nurses are, why they do what they do, the roles they play and how we can make society better by listening to them. I guess it’s their way of looking at life and the proximity of death that makes nurses so compelling for me.”

Ms Jones says the general public’s unfailing trust in nurses – they are consistently rated as the most trustworthy profession – is based on nurses’ moral intelligence, which they demonstrate through their actions every day.

“Moral intelligence fosters trust, but we don’t think about trust anymore, especially in the current political climate. I often find myself completely and utterly struck by the emotional and moral intelligence of nurses.

‘Whether they get a head start and there’s some DNA in there that’s just different than the rest of us, or maybe it is the habitual repetition of being right and doing the right thing over and over that fosters this kind of moral intelligence, I don’t know. But nurses know more about who we are and what makes us tick than anybody else.

‘As much as the work I do is meant to celebrate nurses, and I’m glad that it does that, I think the public is missing out in a big way, and that’s really my mission: to get people to learn to respect this extraordinary group of individuals who do this profession, because we have so much to learn from them, and they could make our society better.”

She says it is nurses’ ability to care for people irrespective of who they are or what they have done that sets nurses apart.

“If you spend all day every day caring for people, no matter what their race or religion or political party, you are going to evolve beyond the rest of us. It is just that simple, and the more you do that, the more you have to offer in terms of a birds eye view and a global vision of where we are in the world.”

During her battle against cancer many years ago, Ms Jones had surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, and she found the whole experience increasingly difficult. She says she felt like ‘a weird person who didn’t know who she was anymore’, and she was dreading losing her hair because she would no longer be able to hide the fact that she was sick, and everybody would know. But then a nurse walked into her life, and things seemed different.

“She was hilarious. She was irreverent and funny, and for the first time in six months, she made me feel normal. I thought, oh my goodness, this person has this way of making me feel better that is unique and wonderful and makes a huge difference. We had this intimate moment and then we went our separate ways. She never knew how much she’d done for me. The minute the idea about a book about nurses was raised, I saw it as an opportunity to dig into what makes us better human beings, which has been something that’s been a quest of mine for my whole lifetime.”

She says nurses have a profound effect on patient’s lives and the lives of the people around them, and that she could spend the rest of her life just focusing on the ripple effect of nursing. One of the stories in The American Nurse is about Tonia Faust, a nurse who runs a hospice programme at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison. Ms Jones says going there with Tonia was an extraordinary experience.

“99% of those guys are lifers [sentenced for life], they are going to die there. I followed the nurse into a room to meet a guy she was working with. I was peeling myself off the floor with the whole experience because it was all so strange and other-worldly. And the patient introduces himself by telling me he was in jail because he killed his wife. Tonia just carried on - he might just as well have said “the sky is blue”. He talked about how Tonia helped him write a letter to his daughter, and how he had subsequently reconnected with her after 20 years.

‘And I’m thinking, can you imagine the ripple effect of that? There’s a young woman somewhere, who’s now a mother, and at the end of her father’s life they are connecting, and they’ve found peace and they talk on the phone once a week. There’s no way to know how much healthier that made that young woman, or how it will affect how she raises her children, and all because Tonia had walked into the room and asked him what mattered to him and how could she help him get through his day. He said he’d like to get in touch with his daughter, and that was that. To an outsider like me, this is magic.”

Ms Jones has just finished her latest film looking at nursing in seven emergency departments across the United States. She says what she saw was horrifying because of the relentless number of upsetting scenes, the violence and the trauma.

“I don’t know how any nurse does what they do, but aside from that, what really struck me was that in the middle of all these horrible, tragic moments, you would see a nurse lean over and just say, “hey, I’ve got you”, or give somebody water, and not just give it to them, but do it in a way that showed they cared for them. We would follow them on these 12- or 14-hour shifts and we’d see these little jewels of humanity shine through.”

The American Nurse book is a permanent record of nurses standing proudly in front of the work that they do, but although the black and white pictures are powerful, the work of nursing is always hidden behind the nurse in the photograph. And while she is proud of the book, Ms Jones says she realised she had never captured the nurses ‘walking over the threshold and into the lives of their patients’.

“That just haunted me, because I kept wanting to look around the nurses to see what was going on behind them, what nursing really looked like. When I was doing the book, I didn’t think that it was going to be a possibility to capture those intimate moments. We decided to follow five nurses into their worlds as they cared for their patients, and that’s how my making films about nurses started.

‘I feel that there’s all of us out here – laymen – and then there are nurses. I haven’t found another profession like this. No other profession offers as much purpose in life. I’m not a religious person, so for me, what we do right now as human beings is paramount. So telling these stories and letting them evolve and letting people see who nurses are, and giving them something to aspire to… because the darker our politics get over here, the more I feel thirsty for the qualities they exemplify… to be surrounded by nurses is heaven.”

Making films about nurses inevitably brought Ms Jones into contact with people who were dying, and she was struck by the fact that not everyone is destined to have a good death.

“I became extremely focused on the end of life and how we are not dying very well, so I decided to do a film that would focus on that and I knew that was going to be more complicated emotionally to do. To prepare myself, I volunteered at a hospital and in the hospice section so I could get accustomed to talking to people who were in a lot of pain or dealing with emotional and physical trauma. That was part of my education and then we followed a number of patients who were dealing with life-threatening illnesses in the second film, Defining Hope. And then we decided to do this film. I saw things that, honestly, just made me want to crumple to the floor and say, 'I can’t capture this'.

‘One of the first times we were on a night shift a child died in the emergency room. A baby. The family came in, and I had to watch the nurses come out of that area and immediately come and work on another patient who had been hit by a car. And the nurses were wiping their tears from their eyes, and there wasn’t even a second to process going from room A to room B.

‘And I just thought I would never be able to do this film. But then you think, people need to know what’s going on here. Clearly there aren’t enough nurses, and clearly, they must be walking around with post-traumatic stress every day, because this is so overwhelming, and we are asking them to care for us, and on top of that, we are rude to them. There was so much wrong with this picture and so I was determined to [be strong] and stomach what we were seeing, but there were many times I wanted to crumple and say, ‘it’s too much’.”

Her new film, based on these experiences, is called In Case of Emergency. It is planned to be premiered in New York in May 2020, and while it is notoriously hard to get documentary films into cinemas, Ms Jones is determined it should be seen in cinemas because such films are particularly powerful when seen with a mass audience.

“This film is very up close and personal and it’s not always the easiest film to watch. It’s a very exciting, interesting film and we wanted it to be – it’s very colourful, the nurses are interesting and it’s fascinating. I want nurses to grab a couple of people and take them into the theatre with them… I want people to see this film and get involved and provide a warm hand in the community so that people are not going through a revolving door, because what we are asking nurses to do in emergency departments is not sustainable.”

Ms Jones says it is important that the public sees the intimate moments that nurses create because they go to the heart of our humanity.

“These are universal themes. It seems like nurses are in a kind of cocoon where no one knows what they do, no one wants to hear about it, and so it becomes this insulated, magical place. Life is brighter when death is at the table: when we are thinking about our mortality, when we are reminded every day how important our health is, colours are brighter, smells are stronger, everything is more vibrant. That’s something I wish the public could understand and share in. Maybe we would value life more if we could be reminded that this is not an ongoing endless cycle: there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and nurses know that from what they do every day.

‘I am thrilled that nurses see themselves in the work that I create and I am really focused on getting the public to respect the profession because we really need this right now, and I need to find a way to communicate what I have learned through storytelling to show that these are moments of great nursing, they are universal and all is not lost. There is this wonderful way of looking at the world.”

The film’s distributors aim to get it shown in cinemas, and community groups will be able to see it through a sort of crowd funding process whereby 30 people will be able to reserve a screen for a night to see the film. It will be available at and it will be available on Amazon and iTunes and perhaps distributed in other ways and on DVD.

Ms Jones says her affair with nursing is not over. She has a not-for-profit organisation called the 100 People Foundation that is an attempt to provide a statistically representative portrait of the world in 100 people. So, for example there would be 50 women and 50 men, 25 would be children, 75 would be adults, nine of whom would be aged over 65, there would be 60 Asians, 16 Africans, 14 people from the Americas and ten Europeans and so on.

She now wants to extend that idea and create a portrait that represents nursing in 100 nurses.

“My dream is to merge these two things – to find 100 nurses from around the world who are dealing with all of the issues that we don’t want to talk about. Everything from the Ebola virus to war, the Coronavirus, famine and migration and all the tough places that the rest of us run away from but nurses run towards.

‘Now is a wonderful time to find 100 heroes in the world that are doing this extraordinary work and turn that into an exhibition as well as a film. For me this is unfinished business… I have ten years’ knowledge of nurses: I’m sitting on this gold mine of humanity and it’s too frustrating for me to not get it out in the way that I want to. I’m still trying to figure out what the best path is. But it seems like a cop out if I stop now.”

She says nurses’ modesty is preventing the world from truly appreciating what nursing can do, and she wants to lift the veil and shine a light on the hidden world that they inhabit.

“Every single nurse I have ever met to interview comes out of the gate with ‘I don’t know why you’re talking to me, I’m sure there is someone else who is better equipped to have this conversation'. It’s charming and it’s lovely, but I don’t want to be the spokesperson for nursing. I want the public to understand nursing and I would like to help create spokespeople for nursing. Even though all the interviews I’ve done start with that modesty, they end with someone sitting up a little straighter and telling me how they feel. Every single nurse I’ve interviewed is able to articulate what they are experiencing for the public in a great way.

‘I want nurses to feel elevated and come out of this idea that no one else wants to know what they are doing. The public will never understand it until nurses tell them what goes on. I hope that some nurses will rise to the surface and find their voices. They are the best story tellers I’ve ever encountered. That’s what I love about interviewing nurses – boom, the story is right there.”

Find the links to Carolyn Jones' film trailers here: