Robert Houser is the mega talent who shot pics of my baldness in the Spring of 2011, while I was deep in the middle of the bone marrow transplant process. In the process, Bob won the award for Creativity in Photography from Communication Arts Magazine, the largest trade journal of visual communications, for this image (to the right) that he took of me. The photo was then featured in the 2011 Communication Arts Photo Annual, and Bob has since photographed many other cancer patients, growing this impressive Facing Chemo project that will be showcased in upcoming gallery showings and a book to follow.
To accompany Bob’s images, I inked this foreword for his book…
When I was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 32-years-old, I was unsure about photographing my cancer baldness. I wasn’t keen on the idea of creating a pictorial flipbook of my train wreck. But in the process of my illness, photos became one of my most cherished material possessions. So, when I found out that the cancer had recurred, I wanted to be photographed. The solitude of this life-threatening disease made me want to capture whatever time I had left, however I looked.
These images by Bob Houser were taken during one of the most fragile parts of my struggle with relapsed cancer – an intensely personal and transformative time, when I had to dig deep within my soul to find enough resolve to live beyond the end of each painful exhalation. For me, my will to live grew by cultivating self love – physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually… and in any way that I could.
Having the look of cancer, I often evoked averted stares from strangers. But what hurt me most was that I averted my own gaze. I couldn’t stand the sight of myself, and I would even jump back if I caught my own reflection on the side of a car. I never looked in the mirror except to check out a new wound, scar, rash or some other hideous problem.
These photos made me look at myself honestly, and to see that I was still beautiful on the outside. The experience gave me back some hard sought self-esteem. It might seem superficial to prioritize physical presentation when faced with life-or-death, but the truth is that I never transcended such things. I never stopped being human.
What I like most about the winning photo with my hands clasping my face, are the tiny silhouettes of Bob’s reflection in the pupils of my eyes. My photo session with Bob was a rare moment, when someone was looking closely at me with interest, but seeing more than just my cancer. Being medically interesting, people were constantly taking images of me from every angle – PET scans, CT scans, MRIs, Ultrasounds, X-rays, etc. – an endless treatment of bread slice pictures and heat maps to closely monitor every cell in my body. They were images of what was wrong with me.
When I look at the photos that Bob took, I don’t see anything wrong with me. I see that I was perfectly cancerous – real, fragile, pained … and yet, still beautiful.
Thank you, Bob Houser. You are amazing. I’m so lucky that you came into my life over five years ago. Without a doubt, the incredible community that you’ve created is because your magnetic talent is at its core. Thank you for seeing the humanity in cancer.
Click HERE for a short video about how the Facing Chemo project began with Bob and Christabel on a rainy day in San Francisco.
Congrats on your new Facing Light nonprofit to support even more projects like Facing Chemo Project.