How did you come to the decision to photograph your parents’ journey through cancer and death?
Photographing my parents’ journey started pretty organically. Not knowing how much time we had left together, I knew that I wanted and needed to be with them as often as possible. Photography allowed me a familiar context through which I could better process what was happening while also providing a safety net and distance that shielded me from the actual realty. I thought my parents would always be there over the course of my life so when I realized that I was losing them before my 30th birthday, I knew needed to find a way to hold onto them and capture the essence of who they were.
What do you want people to take away with them after viewing the book?
When my parents were faced with their own mortality, they decided to make the most of the time they had left on this earth. They chose to live, grow and love, and as a result, their courage and strength inspired me and others to live by the example they set. They taught me a great deal over the short two-year span that they were sick together, and I feel a responsibility to share these lessons with others. As my dad once said, “we were never promised longevity and each day is a gift.” His parents both died of cancer when he was young so he learned this lesson early. Because of this, he made sure to live his life to the fullest with few regrets. To those who may relate to my parents’ cancer or the feeling of loss, I hope this book offers a sense of comfort and community. I know first hand how lonely and scary times like these can be. I also hope that this book inspires readers to appreciate the time that they have and to hold the people dear to them a little closer. It is a cliché but “life is short” has become a daily mantra in my life and after all, it’s a cliché because it is true!
What do you think the role of art is in examining death and disease?
As a society, we avoid talking about death, yet much like life itself, it is a part of the universal human experience. We all know how the story ends, so perhaps if we discuss it more, we can not only to begin to understand it with this knowledge and awareness, we can also take advantage of the time we have left. Photography speaks in a universal language, allowing its audience to bring their own context to the images and I think that is why it can be such a powerful tool when talking about difficult topics such as death and disease. I received an email after the photographs had been published and the writer shared that while some of the photographs scared her, she was grateful to see them because she was about to go through something similar and now knew what to expect. Ignorance isn’t always bliss.
You include personal mementos, letters, and old family photographs throughout the book. Why do you think these are important for the visual experience of this book?
In creating this book, I wanted to tell the whole story, not just the cancer story. My parents didn’t want to be defined by their diseases. Cancer was just a piece of their final chapters and they were so much more than it in their almost 60 years on this Earth. To tell the whole story meant looking back on the life they lived, and when we began cleaning out our family home, we uncovered decades of memories and clues about our lives, which I felt would enrich the larger story being told. My goal in including these items was to help the reader understand where we came from. There is no right or wrong way to deal with losing loved ones, but by telling the bigger story, I hope it can be an example of one way—our way—when faced with this kind of situation. Artistically, these items were important and included in the story because I hoped it would read like a family album or scrapbook similar to the ones we had lining our bookshelves at home.
Did the act of photographing your dying parents keep you from being able to grieve your impending loss of them?
There were certainly moments, many in fact, in which photographing my parents allowed me to partially disconnect from reality and give my heart a break from all the heaviness. That said, I think I’ve been grieving the potential loss of my parents for a very long time, even before my father became sick because my mom had been sick for so many more years and the reality of potentially losing her was always there. In a way, my camera was a therapeutic tool that allowed me to better process our situation so I could be the daughter and advocate that I wanted to be.
When the photo essay was first published, were you surprised by the response? What did you parents think of when you shared with them that the New York Times wanted to publish a story about what they were going through?
Their initial response, when I told them of the New York Times’ interest in the photographs, was “why would anyone care about our story?” I had never planned to share the photographs with anyone as they were quite personal, but when I look back on how the opportunity came up, I know my parents agreed because they wanted to help me advance my career. They were always so supportive of my artistic endeavors, and for that I am beyond grateful. None of us realized was how big of an impact the story would have around the world. We were truly shocked when emails, letter and phone calls poured in by the hundreds following the publication. People related to our experience and in turn felt like they could share their stories with us the way we did with them. Oftentimes, at the end of an exhausting day, I would read these anecdotes to my parents. It was good for the to see how they were directly impacting others. Sharing our story became a therapeutic tool for others, and feeling this profound connection with strangers was extremely meaningful to my family. In some ways, the response allowed my parents to find purpose in their final months and see that their lives and deaths positively impacted those around them.
Our world is in color; was there a reason you decided to photograph your family in black and white?
As an artist and a storyteller, I feel very strongly about explaining my decisions behind why I did what I did regarding the images. While we live in a color world, my world felt colorless. There was no sense of time or place, and black and white reflected not only what I was feeling, but also how I was experiencing life. What I didn’t realize at the time when I started this project was just how important to my mental wellbeing this decision would be. Upon making it to the final rounds of one of the biggest competitions in photography, I had to submit the original files, which were in color. While pulling the files together, I found myself completely overwhelmed and I broke down and cried for a while. This reaction to the color images completely caught me off guard because I had seen these images a thousand times so why now? Seeing the images in color brought me immediately back to those moments as they happened and color brought me back to reality. It protected me in a way that became part of my grieving process.
Your father died on December 7th, 2013 and your mother on Dec. 6, 2014: almost the same day, one year apart. What was going through your mind during this time?
I don’t believe in coincidences. Of course I was upset and in shock when a year after my father passed away, my mother was gone, but the timing didn’t really surprise me. I had heard from others that this could happen, and did happen, with many elderly couples and I found comfort in the fact that they were together again. Neither was in pain anymore and they were truly in this together, ‘til death did they part. They taught my siblings and me so much by the example they made with their lives, and their deaths in particular, the lesson of having perspective. Yes, our time was cut short, but the gift they gave us was an awareness of time, and we made the most of every second we had together, and I was there, documenting it and holding onto to each moment. Even their funerals, which I photographed, are important for me to remember because when I look at those photographs, I see the faces of all the people who loved them, and us, and find tremendous comfort in seeing those images.
Thank you Nancy, for this interview, your great book and your trust in Hatje Cantz. If you want to learn more about the Nancy's motivation and feelings on that very personal project, please find a Vimeo interview here.