Grant Winner This project was awarded a special cash grant by juror Clare Grafik. Each of the five jury members selected one photographer from the Top 50 Emerging Talents to be awarded special distinction with a cash grant.
From Juror Clare Grafik:
“Nancy Borowick’s black and white photographs document her parents’ lives as they receive parallel treatment for cancer. Rather than a tragic tale of love and loss, this series focuses on the quiet intimacy between a man and woman who share infinitely more than their current challenges. The images are accomplished in both execution and editing but – moreover – are filled with honesty, humour and an everyday empathy that quietly but insistently gives the work a strength and enduring quality I found extremely striking.”
— Clare Grafik, The Photographers' Gallery
In 2013, my parents were in treatment for cancer – my mom for breast cancer and my dad for pancreatic cancer. This series documents the pain and challenges of treatment, but also focuses on their bravery in the face of mortality.
With compassion and respect, I aspire to capture the full range of their experience – from the daily banter they shared as husband and wife to their shifting dynamic as patient and caregiver.
While my father passed away in December, I see this project as a way to immortalize my parents, their strength in the face of illness, and their love for each other.
Cancer gave my family a harsh, yet valuable gift: an awareness of time. My mother has been battling her disease for almost twenty years, and as a family we have not taken any of those years for granted. My father had only one year with his disease. From his first diagnosis, we knew our time together would be short.
By photographing my parents, I have been able to archive their story and capture their essence, remembering the good moments and the bad, as well as the silly moments and the sad. The project has become our shared history. This story strengthened my belief in the notion that to tell a powerful and honest story, one must seek true intimacy and humility with the subject.
Photographing my family and my life has been one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had, despite the fact that access to my subjects has been unlimited. I constantly struggle with my ever-changing roles as photographer, daughter, and caretaker. Learning this balance, I believe, has helped me grow both as a photographer and as a storyteller.
Since we first recognized Nancy Borowick's work, it has struck a nerve, reaching thousands of readers and eliciting strong responses. Assistant editor Alexander Strecker contacted Borowick to find out even more behind the story and her work.
How did you first become interested in photography?
I have always loved connecting with other people. I was the child talking to strangers, learning their stories, and sharing mine. When I was exposed to photography in high school, I was hooked. Since I learned on film, I grew attached to the way that every frame mattered. It really felt like I was creating something.
When did you decide to make "Cancer Family"? How did you approach your parents with the idea?
A few years ago, I photographed my mother after she went through her first recurrence of breast cancer. I spent a year documenting her experience of fighting the disease and charting the changes in her relationship with her husband, my dad. She survived with clean scans and things seemed normal.
Fast-forward almost two years and she got news that her disease was back. Then, in December 2012, my dad received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Within a month, they were both in treatment, side by side at Greenwich Hospital. I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could and to do that, I decided I would photograph them. I wanted to remember every moment together, good or bad. I wanted to remember their essence and their love for one another, and my love for them.
At the same time, photographing my family was difficult because it was my life, and my reality, unfolding in front of me. I couldn't emotionally detach because my subjects were not just another one of my subjects at work. At those times, I had to think of this project as an assignment, which helped me distance myself emotionally while I was shooting.
Each picture shows a different stage of their illness—how often did you shoot and how did you decide to edit the photos?
Once I undertook this project, I made it my priority. I turned down other work and spent as much time at home with my parents as possible. Once they got used to me being around so much, they began to forget I was there and would continue with their day-to-day.
When editing the photographs, I realized how many different elements there were to the story. Yes, they both had cancer and were in treatment together, but I began to see the larger story as the depiction of their relationship as husband and wife, and as caretaker and patient. How did they take care of each other when they were both sick? As I spent more time with them, I saw how their relationship was evolving. My father began to understand what my mother had been going through these last 18 years with her disease and they both needed to learn how to ask for help.
It was difficult to edit the images because the story continues. My mother continues to fight her disease while mourning the death of my father and facing her own mortality. I have an emotional attachment to each image and each memory so narrowing down the edit was a great challenge.
What impact does your work have on the people that you choose to shoot?
I think every photographer's dream is to impact those that see their images—but also, to feel that their subjects get some of that impact as well. Well, my dream came true. My parent's story touched the lives of so many people around the world, and as a result, it helped my parents feel less alone. Together, we received hundreds of messages from people around the world in response to the photographs. I think the response has given my mom hope and drive to push forward, knowing she has the support of the world behind her. My father was moved by the process too, and in death, his story remains so alive.
What advice would you give to an emerging photographer looking to take the step in their career?
In this business you are a one-person show. You really need to put yourself out there, believe in what you are doing, and find ways to make it happen. When I first started shooting for Newsday, my first newspaper gig, they asked if I had a car (which was sort of a deal-breaker with them at the time). I lied and said yes, and whenever they called me for work, I found a way to get a car and do the job to the best of my ability.
Put differently, you have to hustle, and prove that you are worth hiring. There is a line of photographers waiting behind you for the same opportunities so you have to be willing to say yes to any opportunity that comes your way (even if that means making other sacrifices). Of course, everyone’s experience is different—but this is how I carved my path and doors continue to open, so I think I’m doing something right?
—Nancy Borowick, as told to Alexander Strecker
Exhibition of all 50 LensCulture Emerging Talents: Barcelona, October 13-31.
Nancy Borowick's work, along with photographs from ALL the LensCulture Emerging Talents will be shown in an exhibition at the Galeria Valid Foto in Barcelona. Please join us for the opening party on October 13, 2014—we hope to see you there! See a preview of ALL the winners here in LensCulture.
ALL winners have already been featured at photo festival screenings in Dublin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Amsterdam so far this year. Next screening in Korea at the Seoul Lunar Photo Fest.