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.

His and Hers
Dad called these “his and hers chairs.” He would sit beside Mom, his partner and wife of thirty-four years, as they got their weekly chemotherapy treatments. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she was in treatment for breast cancer for the third time in her life. For him it was new and unknown, and for her it was business as usual, another appointment on her calendar. Greenwich, Connecticut. January 2013.

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.

The Getaway
About to start new rounds of chemotherapy treatment, Dad and Mom take a last minute trip to Florida. Life is about to change dramatically for the Borowick family, and one quick escape from realty was necessary for the mind and body. In the face of their own deaths, they felt that living was important. Naples, Florida. January 2013.

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!

The Kitchen Dance
Dad always knew how to make Mom laugh. Even when he was feeling completely terrible after seven hours of chemotherapy, he could still bust-a-move and get a smile out of her. Chappaqua, New York. February, 2013.

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.

On The Bathroom Floor
When the doctor calls to give you news about your scan results, who takes such an important phone call in the bathroom? My parents did. As I waited for reactions and information, I saw my Mom beginning to wipe tears from her eyes. It turned out to be good news for both of them- the tumors were shrinking. But what if one had good news and the other had bad? Do you celebrate for yourself, and mourn for the other? Chappaqua, New York. March 2013.

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.

Down The Aisle
Newly engaged, I asked my parents’ doctor if he thought my parents would be around for an October wedding. His response, “Plan it as soon as possible.” I decided that while October was five months away, they were going to make it there. And they did. They mustered all of their strength and walked me arm-in-arm down the aisle. Highland, NY. October 2013.

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.

The Last Word
Dad left instructions for his funeral. He requested to be buried in his favorite Giants football jersey (Lawrence Taylor, #56), his favorite pair of jeans, and his HB baseball cap. Even in death he was alive in a sense and brought a smile to mom’s face. Mt. Kisco, New York. December 2013.

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?

The Oxygen Machine
With tumor growing in her liver causing distension and pressure in her stomach, Laurel struggles to breathe with ease. An oxygen machine is now a permanent fixture in the home and helps her when she feels she needs it. As the days go one, she begins using it more and more as her movement and speech become more labored. Chappaqua, NY. November 2014.

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.

Nothing But A Whisper
This morning was different from all of the others. Mom could not get out of bed and was no longer speaking in anything but a whisper. Matthew, her son, gave her a kiss on the forehead but got little reaction.

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.

For many it felt like De Ja Vu. Just one year ago, most of these people gathered in the same location, at the same time, to remember Dad. Now, they reconvene in the same location, at the same time, to remember Mom. She never liked to be the center of attention and now here she was, front and center, surrounded by so many who loved and cared about her. Chappaqua, NY. December 2014.

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.

The Embrace
“So my philosophy on life is, it’s a gift, and any amount of years is a gift- and nobody promised me longevity. No one promised me success. Nobody promised me love. Nobody promised me good friends. Nobody promised me a great career. And yet, I’ve had all these. So, I’m way ahead in the balloting and in accounting. So I have no regrets because without any guarantees of those things, I’ve been able to achieve them and I’ve been blessed with them for a long long time.”- Dad Chappaqua, New York. March 2013.


Translated by: Erika Orlando