Cardiologist, faculty member and adventure photographer balances career and life with a hobby that’s taken him around the world
Charles Porter, M.D., started his medical career at the same time as his career in photography, and both provide plenty of adventure to this day.
The same month he started medical school at the University of Kansas in 1974, Charles Porter, M.D., bought a camera. He joined the yearbook staff to work in the darkroom on weekends and make friends. It worked, and decades later, he’s made friends all over the world while pursuing his love of photography.
“Although I grew up here, I never thought I would stay in Kansas City for my career,” said Porter, who is director of the cardio-oncology program at The University of Kansas Cancer Center and The University of Kansas Health System. “I graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and thought I would go to Tulane for medical school.” But he and his girlfriend were not accepted at the same schools, so he came home … and today he would say that was a great decision.
“Originally I thought I might move to a big city like Los Angeles, but the older I got, the better KU looked because other factors made a bigger difference,” he said. “Who cares about the nightlife in LA when you are a doctor? I didn’t have time for that!” So rather than commuting across a bridge to a Manhattan hospital, he enjoys living close to work.
Plus, he added, there is plenty to photograph in this beautiful city. One example is the time during a massive ice storm in the mid-1980s when he grabbed his camera and drove down to the Country Club Plaza to try his luck. “I was the only knucklehead down there taking pictures … but I got some! I stayed until my fingers and my lens were frozen!”
Porter has devoted most of his vacations to adventures in travel photography. He has hired mentors, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, to help him learn and practice his skills.
“Sometimes you sneak in and wait for a subject to ignore you,” he said. “I have duckwalked into position. You have to be flexible — like once on a beach in Veracruz I balanced on my elbows and toes to get a shot. You can’t get sand on your hands, or you’ll ruin the lens.”
He used to shoot on film, and he even has a few rolls of Kodachrome as souvenirs from the old days.
“By 2008 I had switched entirely to digital,” he said. “I can toss my camera and three lenses in a backpack now without checking them as baggage.”
He goes on photography adventures with other photographers to places like Bhutan, where he saw a woman who looked like she could be 80 years old carrying a bale of straw heavier than she was.
“I saw her go by on top of a hill … and I spent 25 minutes following her trying to get a better photo … but she walked faster than I could go! I just went on impulse, and there is a great adventure in getting good photos like that.”
Most vacations he is accompanied by his wife, Susan Porter, M.D. (a retired anesthesiologist), and their friends to places like Vietnam, Guatemala, Cuba, Spain, Italy, France and others.
“I compromise with my wife by getting up early and going out for an hour or so,” he said. “The best light is in the morning — the air is cleaner. And my theory is that in the early hours there are fewer predatory people who might take advantage of a tourist photographer!”
The rest of the day he can devote to seeing the sights with his wife and enjoying the culture. “She jokes about getting an Air Tag to attach to me, so she knows where I am.”
His next travel adventure is to Ireland in April where he will visit pubs to hear live music into the night. “The good thing about being a cardiologist and taking overnight calls for decades is that I am used to getting by on little sleep,” he said. “It’s harder now, but you get used to getting up and doing stuff, then catching sleep when you can.”
Today his work is in the cardio-oncology department, a program that he started in 2005. “As a cardiologist I have to learn cancer therapies, which many are denied because of their weakened heart,” he said. “I came up with the term ‘permissive cardiotoxicity,’ which gained traction in a research paper we published in 2022. It means we find an acceptable level of heart weakening while patients receive cancer treatment … then treating their cardio issues after they survive cancer.”
In a clinical setting, he said patients prefer to see his photographs rather than diplomas on the walls. He has gained a reputation over the years as a fine art photographer and donates pieces to silent auctions for local nonprofits including KC Shakespeare and Medical Missions Foundation. He has also donated photographs to KU Medical Center where they are on display.