Grappling with the weight of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis often feels isolating and impossible to unpack, but for photographer Sophie Gabrielle, this emotional weight provoked her search for a creative outlet to articulate her thoughts rather than suppress them. After discovering a number of her close family members were ill with the disease, she searched through physical and digital scientific archives connected to the various strains associated with each loved one. “I was interested in archives that were connected to my family’s own story of diagnosis, treatment, recovery and death,” she explains. The resulting images make up her body of work Worry for the Fruit the Birds Won’t Eat, which Gabrielle describes as “an exploration into the world of the unseen through optics, chemical interactions, and the investigative processes used to photograph something invisible to the naked eye.”
As Gabrielle worked through the archives, she also worked through her own personal trauma and confusion. “It was an all-consuming process, both physically and emotionally. The images I was most drawn to ran parallel to the events happening in the lives of my family members during that painful time.” Each archival discovery pointed Gabrielle in another direction, so that she eventually found major points of comparison across multiple sets of images from a variety of different sources. “My father’s diagnosis of stage four prostate cancer this past March made me reflect on the surgical procedures in the images, and my grandfather’s diagnosis of lung cancer drew me to x-rays, especially after seeing the dark clustered patterns of abnormal cells in the imagery. Also, the collection of botanicals are either medicinal or poisonous – a reflection of the alternate medicinal methods attributed to fighting cancer.”
Upon selecting each archival image, Gabrielle used historical processes to involve her own photographic practice in the work. After leaving each image under a glass plate to collect floating particles of dust and hair, she re-photographed each piece multiple times, creating negatives that incorporate flecks of the environment’s natural disruptions. “There was something healing about getting lost within the process of creating these images, transforming their scientific purpose into something personal and poetic. I left them to collect dust in places that were significant to me and my family.”
After re-photographing the images, Gabrielle submerged her negatives in polluted water, allowing the emulsion’s degradation to further highlight the lyrical features of illness. “I actually did it while sitting on a jetty in Penang, Malaysia,” she explains. “I was thinking about the clear water that runs from taps, and how this re-enters nature to become ill and polluted. It was this unseen danger that intrigued me, and I wanted to incorporate that into the work. The microbes in the polluted water ate away at the film, leaving their own marks upon the negatives before I made the prints.”
This incorporation of intervention and decay into her photographic process soon became an integral part of Gabrielle’s own healing process, affording her a clear state of mind to work through a number of complex emotions. “This project started as a coping mechanism, and at the end of the day, it’s a poetic form of my own grief as I try to manage a sense of control in a situation that makes me feel powerless. I needed to create these pieces when I felt too heavy to do anything else, especially after the death of my Granddad Barry early this year.” The resulting visuals play with the relationship between what is visible and invisible in illness, and how this is materially reflected in Gabrielle’s own analogue photographic practice.