The benefit of photography in illness, especially for someone seriously unwell, is not a new concept. Many others have testified to the therapeutic advantages of being creatively absorbed in photography. It can help the curing process, alongside the established treatments.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease thirty months ago and, since I had previously suffered from a similar cancer, I had some sense of what was in store for me and how to cope with it. My enthusiasm for photography was well established in that I have been using a camera since my early teens and had recently achieved the Licentiateship of the Royal Photographic Society.
For twenty months, my life became structured by three-weekly chemotherapy treatments, followed by radio therapy and finally by immunotherapy. The side effects of the treatments were almost immediately apparent, primarily as a debilitating fatigue; on a good day, I struggled to walk a couple of kilometres.
Allowing for the limitations of time and energy, I searched for a project that would engage me completely. I did not want a more accessible studio-based occupation such as still life or macro projects, primarily because I felt it was essential to get out in to the beautiful countryside that wraps around my home in south-western France. Thus, I embarked on my project of Photography in Illness.
I decided to make working for the Royal Photographic Society’s Associateship the focus of my project, and began looking for a suitable subject within my two main photography interests, street photography with candid portraits and landscape, specifically intimate landscape.
For many years I had visited and photographed the Marais, a wooded wetland area about nine kilometres from my home. So I began to set about systematically putting together an Associateship panel. For the days when getting to the Marais and the three-kilometre walk felt too much, I intended to continue taking street portraits.
I was usually able to drive into our local town, wander the streets for a few hundred meters and sit outside cafés, photographing the world as it passed by. This rhythm of photography in illness was always interrupted by the days of treatment, scans, and blood tests.
The camera developed into more than a means of taking photographs, it became the medium by which I related to the ‘normal’ world. I began to see even the most familiar things, such as the water courses in the Marais, the trees and plants enclosing them and the people in the streets and cafés, in a new and intensified way.
For many years, I had followed a Buddhist meditation practice, focusing on my breathing. Similarly, what I saw of the Marais and the streets and cafés through the viewfinder of my cameras, became my focus point. My photography became more considered and reflective. Gradually, I became a more mindful photographer. It is photographs from both of these genres that illustrate this article.
Specifically, in relation to a photographic project during serious illness, I discovered a few new truths:
- Photography projects gave me the incentive to get out of my chair, whether I felt like it or not.
- The need to select the subject carefully, to decide which lens to choose, the best exposure when working manually and managing good composition, kept my mind exercised.
- Working in the streets of the town and anticipating the “decisive moment” helped to maintain my interest and kept my mind alert.
- Not least, I found everything involved in post-processing, working deeper into the applications I used and ordering the photographs as I wanted them, was another form of creative absorption that distracted me from the illness.
Working with the RPS
I was fortunate in being able to work for the RPS Documentary Group Journal, putting together articles on documentary distinctions the editor wanted to include. I must add to this the considerable reading I undertook on photography and the photographers who interested me.
All of this was held together by working for the Associateship. I sat in on assessments, read about and looked at successful submissions and put together panels for two One2One advisory assessments.
I am not intending to make a special case for myself; there will be many who have discovered that using the camera during an illness has helped the process of healing. But I hope that this article will catch the eye of someone who is ill and encourage them to wear a camera whenever they can and wherever they go.
Photography in Illness: My thanks
I would like to express my thanks to all those who helped and encouraged me, the contact with the Royal Photographic Society Benelux Chapter, the RPS Special Interest Groups to which I’m attached, a landscape critics group and the Associateship assessors. And a special thanks to Dennis Anguige FRPS, a fellow contributor to Macfilos.
The treatment of the cancer seems to have been successful, as was the Associateship submission. I am now left with debilitating side-effects of the treatment, but I am confident that working for an RPS Fellowship will help me to manage them.
Note: I took the photographs in this article with a Leica Q2 or Leica CL.
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