Jun 19, 2007

The many FACES of CANCER

For the last several weeks I've been working on a project in advance of the local Relay for Life event, which takes place this Friday and Saturday.
When we originally met with the local RFL group about two months ago we had talked about doing a photo essay about a local person who had cancer. It was quickly obvious that two months was nowhere near the amount of time needed to do the story right.
The idea for the project I ended up doing came from a thought I had following the discussions of who to do the original story on, as we had talked about it being someone who "looked like they had cancer." I was thinking how naive that is to assume that someone is going to look a certain way because of the illness they have. I guess because you always see stories about people who have lost their hair from chemo or are in the throes of the final stages?
The idea that came was that there is not one face that defines what cancer is, there are many. My uncle Steven, who died of cancer 12 years ago, looked no different than anyone else. But how to show that?
The seed was planted further while attending the National Press Photographers Association's annual Photojournalism Summmit in Portland a few weeks back. Many of the speakers on the multimedia side were talking about "non-linear storytelling," as in there doesn't have to be a beginning or end or an arc that the story follows. First thing the following Monday I told my boss what I wanted to do.
The many Faces of Cancer
We quickly rounded up as many people as were interested and set up times for them to come in to the newspaper office after hours. We don't have a studio at our office so I had to improvise, throwing together a make-shift studio in the hallway. After each shoot I recorded interviews with each person.
I wanted the portraits to be simple, yet eloquent enough that people would want to look at them. This was important as the individual pieces would simply feature their picture while they spoke. I wanted people to really have to look at them while they talked, not be distracted. I told each person that the pictures were serialized, as in they were all basically set up the same, but each would be different in its own way. I did not ask them to look any certain way, but simply to think of something that was meaningful to them during the time they had with cancer — and just let it be naturally reflected on their face — and I would take pictures while they did this. I wanted the finished piece to be about them, not about what I can do with a camera.
One of my favorites is Heather Gray, who initially wanted to do a standard "getting my picture taken" smile. But as she thought and reflected, eventually, for just a second or two, this defiant look came across her face that to me said "Cancer, I don't care about you," you know what I mean? She is a brave lady who is in the midst of staring down cancer right now for a second time.

Please visit the link above to see the final product. I'm very proud of how it came out and hopefully it will shine some light on some amazing people and a very worthy cause.

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