Photography

Photos of My Parents as They Both Face Terminal Cancer

"My parents were very open with me, allowing me to document our lives at such a delicate time."

by Rebecca Kamm
02 May 2018, 1:13am

All photos by Nancy Borowick

When it comes to photographic projects, it's hard to imagine one more personal than your parents simultaneously fighting stage-four cancer. Or one more psychologically difficult to execute. But Guam-based photographer Nancy Borowick says documenting her parents' journey helped her preserve their memory, as well as capture the strength and grace they showed before they passed.

VICE spoke to Borowick about the end result, titled The Family Imprint, and what it was like capturing love and life in the looming shadow of death.

"My dad called these 'his and hers chairs. Almost every week, my mom and dad would head to chemotherapy treatment together. It felt like a cruel trick by the universe but there was something nice about the fact they had each other."

VICE: The Family Imprint is incredibly moving. What did you want to capture and convey when you were shooting?
Nancy: Cancer was what started the project, but as I began to shoot, the story I told and that [my parents] were showing me was very clearly not about the disease or death or fear. It was about life and love and living. This was a reflection of the courage and perseverance of my parents, who inspired me at every moment. So I hoped to channel that.

"As sick as my father was, it brought him so much joy to make my mother laugh. This moment happened during dinner one night after my father got up to put his dishes in the sink."

How do you feel looking back these images now?
Looking at these images is surprisingly easy for me. Of course there are moments when something triggers a memory and I react, but I feel comfort knowing I'm honouring their memory. I [also] get to keep them alive in a sense, and share their wisdom and perspective with the world.

One thing I believe does help me emotionally is that the images are black and white. The photographs were colour images in their original state, but I made the decision to change them into black and white for a couple of reasons: [Firstly], my world was sort of spiralling around me, and I didn’t notice colour. My universe was completely out of whack because I never thought that at age 28 I would have two dying parents.

Every image I shot [also] felt like a memory, and I desperately wanted to remember everything, and memory to me is in black and white. [Lastly], there was no reason for the colour; it had no role in the story, and when I look back on my images I don’t even remember what they looked like in colour.

"Meet Moses, a 6-year-old Pug-Boston Terrier mix on loan from friend. She shared him with us because he was a natural therapy dog and she thought he would help lighten the mood. She was right. He was the comic relief we all needed as my mother declined her last two weeks alive. At this point she could not stand to be touched by us, but she didn’t mind when Moses plopped himself up onto her and cuddled with her."

As it turns out, this decision [to make the images black and white] proved to be vital to my wellbeing. In winter 2016, I won an award in the World Press Photo competition. This meant I had to send them my RAW files, and as I sifted through my images I suddenly broke down into tears upon seeing the one of my father in his casket. I've looked at these images hundreds of times and been fine. So asked myself, Why this moment?

I realised the last time I'd seen that image in colour was the moment I took it, the moment I lived it. Life and reality are in colour, so I was immediately brought back to my father’s funeral. In some ways, making the decision to go black and white had protected me from feeling the enormity of the reality. It allowed me some distance.

"This image represents so much of what made my mom the amazing woman she was. She was strong and fearless and when things got really tough, she leaned on humour to help her, and us, through it all."

Did you face any particular challenges in this project? How did your parents feel about being your subjects?
Honestly, I didn’t really face too many challenges. My parents were very open with me, allowing me to document our lives at such a delicate time. I believe they did this because they felt like, if it was helping me to process what was happening, then they wanted me to have that outlet. They lived for us kids, and we were so lucky to have them. Once the beginning of our story was published and people from around the world reached out to thank my parents for their candidness and vulnerability, they became even more eager to share—because if it helped others out there, what did they have to lose?

"This was the third time my father had to shave my mom’s hair off… because it was the third time she had had cancer. It was so ridiculous it was almost funny, in an off-beat kind of way. My mother, unsurprisingly, lightened the mood and left us pee-our-pants laughing. It is the cliché of clichés but it's true: Laughter is the best medicine."

Where are you based, and have you always been a photographer?
I grew up in suburban New York and lived in NYC for a decade. In the fall of 2016, however, my husband and I decided we needed to make a change because we worked too much and lived too little. If there was a lesson we learned from the experience of losing my parents it was that life is short, so we decided to take an adventure. This adventure led us 8,000 miles away to the tropical paradise island of Guam in the northern Pacific Ocean, where we've been living for the last year and a half.

I haven’t always been a photographer, but I've always been a storyteller. When I was a kid, a teacher informed my mother that I was the class “tattletale” and I have to believe that was where I got my desire and need to learn and understand other people's stories. I picked up a camera in high school and here I am today, 18 years later, having worked as a professional photographer for the last eight years. Now it's rare to find me sans camera because, as many of us photographers say, it's an extension of who we are.

"I picked a wedding date, four months out, and was determined that my parents would make it there—they did. I rigged a camera up in the tree above the ceremony and passed the remote onto a friend of mine."
"This image was taken poolside in Naples, Florida right after my father’s diagnosis with stage-four pancreatic cancer. They were married 34 years. What I love about this image is that even after all that time, and even though they didn’t feel so great, they were still cute with each other."
"This image is my favourite. It reminds me how vulnerable they were, how strong they were, how supportive they were of each other, and how much love there was."
"In the Jewish tradition, it is custom to honour a loved one who has died by returning to their gravesite one year after their death to “unveil” their burial stone and remember them … They were back together again, and that offered us some closure and understanding.”

The Family Imprint and many more photographic works are on display in galleries and other locations throughout Sydney from May 5-20, as part of Head On Photo Festival 2018.