Nancy Borowick is a photographer which gave us a lovely present: the “Cancer family“project. In this project Nancy has photographed her parents while they were fighting against a terrible disease, the cancer. Despite what we can think at first, these pictures are an hymn to life and to how can be powerful the true love between two people, before and after death.
We had the pleasure to interview Nancy and make her some questions about this project, source of inspiration for every person that has had the possibility and the luck to see it.
When did you decide to start the “Cancer Family” project? Can you remember a precise moment where you took this decision?
I never really decided to start the project… it just sort of happened. I wanted to spend more time with my parents (not knowing how much time we had left) and by photographing them I could both be there by their sides but also rely on the comfort and lens of the camera through which to understand my world unraveling in front of me.
How did you find the strength to take pictures in certain difficult moments? How did you manage to find a balance between being a daughter and a photographer at the same time?
I think my body and my mind were in defense mode the entire time I was photographing them. I think I was trying to protect myself by distracting myself… and photographing my parents, seeing htem as maybe a photo project, strangely allowed me a safe distance from reality. I could focus on the composition and not on the fact that they are having chemo pumped through their veins. By being there, I was also able to advocte for them with the doctors and support them as their daughter, which was important to me.
Were you parents aware of the project? How did they react to your intrusiveness as a photographer? Do you have some anecdotes you want to share with us?
My camera slung over my shoulder was a very familiar sight around my family. I was always taking pictures so this was not strange. When I decided that I wanted to photograph them, it was them who first asked me if I would photograph and tell their story. I was lucky that they were so open and trusted me in this way. In some ways they were too open and vulnerable with me and the daughter in me struggled sometimes to figure out how to react!
When was the most difficult moment? Did you ever tell yourself “I can’t do this”?
I never felt like I couldn’t do this or continue shooting but the most difficult moment had to have been burying my mom. It all happened so fast, losing my dad then my mom. It was a blur, and I know I did not take many photographs by this point. I think I started to feel the reality which was that I was going to be an orphan at age 30 and thought I would have my parents for many more decades. It still surprises me at times when I remember that they are gone… because sometimes it just feels like they are on a long vacation. I think I will certainly feel their presence more once I experience bigger life changes, like having children etc.
What did you feel when you first saw your project finished?
I don’t think it will ever be finished. I think I will continue to photograph my life, and my family, because life continues after death. I have a nephew now, and he is the new generation of our family. I think my upcoming book will feel more like the completion of the project, however, because it is like a scrap book of our lives… with old photos and found objects tucked inside.
We all react to pain in different ways, everyone find its own, yours for example was photography. Did it help you?
Yes photography helped me tremendously as I processed what I was going through. As a photographer I spend so much of my time seeing and experiencing the world through my camera so it only made sense that I would lean on that in this situation. What also helped me was how other people reacted to the images. People would see the photographs and then share their stories with me. Because of this, I never felt alone and always felt like I had a community supporting me which was pretty special.
Did some relative or friend of yours disagree with your project?
Everyone was pretty much on board. I think, because they were facing the end of their lives, they realized they had nothing to fear by sharing and if their story could resonate or help someone out there then what did they have to lose?
Considered the great attention and appreciation your project has had, do you feel you managed to communicate what you wanted?
I think so. I honestly did not go into this thinking about how it would be recieved or how people would react. I was just living my life as it was happening and then the story really took on a life of its own. I am proud of the reach that it has had and I cry each time I read an email from someone thanking me for sharing. It is a beautiful thing to know that you have helped someone else, especially a stranger.
Is there any particular photo of the project you feel more attached to? If yes, why?
As you can imagine, they are all meaningful to me for different reasons and I took hundreds of photographs over the course of the two years I was photographing my family. I look at the photographs every day. I like to remember as much about my parents as possible and I often notice things about myself that I can tell are a direct reflection of who they were. I get to hold onto those things, those qualities, those quirks, that I learned from them and carrying them with my always.
If I had to pick one photograph that was the most important to me it would have to be the one I call “The Embrace.” I have always loved this image because I think it captures my parents in such an interesting way. Because of the cancer, and the way it has affected their bodies and minds, they almost resemble one another, making them feel like one unit. They are together in this, and here they are, mirror images of each other. Also, in some strange way, they resemble babies at the beginning of their lives which is odd but beautiful because they are in fact at the end of their lives. There is clearly so much love in this moment, and I also happened to get lucky with the nice light.
On which project are you working now?
Well, since my parents died, my husband and I decided to take an adventure and we moved our lives from NYC to the small pacific island of Guam (you may need to look on a map!). Here, I am busy looking for local projects I can dig my teeth into but I am actually publishing a book (coming out in March) about the project which is taking up a lot of my time! Its called The Family Imprint and it is an intimate story of my family, as my parents underwent parallel treatments for stage-four cancer. The story is about life and love more than cancer and death. In a sense, it reads and feels like a scrapbook—and is filled with decades of saved loved letters, keepsakes and other clues about our lives, enriching the larger story which I had been photographing for a few years already.
Translated by: Erika Orlando
RH – RIDING HIGH