What it's like to balance being a supportive partner with a documentarian, when your girlfriend starts chemotherapy.
Hannah is applying a fresh coat of red lipstick while sat up in a hospital bed, using her iPhone as a mirror. A year ago, a weekend away in celebration of her 20th birthday was followed by a blunt diagnosis from her doctor: "It's cancer." In this photo, she says she found a sense of normality from trying to look as "non-cancer as possible," smack bang in the middle of treatment. To her this means shunning wigs, embracing her buzz cut, and wearing makeup to the hospital every time she's due for a course of the chemotherapy that makes her feel like death.
Cancer. It still makes us think of mortality first. Knowing this, recent photography grad Johnny Griffiths set out to change perceptions of the disease when he found out that Hannah, his girlfriend, had been diagnosed with stage-four Hodgkins Lymphoma. "I wanted to represent cancer in a way it hadn't been before," he says. "It's always captured with dark and really negative images, but it's an illness, not certain death."
When Hannah was diagnosed, in April 2015 when they were both in their second year of college, Johnny uprooted and moved into her family home, where he stayed throughout the course of her treatment. The decision to document Hannah's illness came as the pair realized that while their lives had morphed into a blur of hospital visits and chemotherapy, the outside world was still moving along as normal. "We both realized that if we wanted to graduate, Johnny needed to take the photos," Hannah says. "We were still at uni while I was having chemo, which is when one of Johnny's tutors said, 'Look, I know what you're going through, but you've got to submit some work.'"
To Hannah, one of the hardest things about cancer—the last thing you expect to face at college—was dealing with her friends' inability to process her illness. "No one spoke to me because they didn't know what to say," she says, "and that's why I was adamant that I wanted Johnny to use his final project to show cancer in a different light." And so, his project It's Cancer began.
Coping with the dichotomy between being a supportive partner and a documentarian meant Johnny had to work out where to draw the line, so the series didn't consume their relationship: "There were a lot of times I could have pulled my camera out, which would have made for really powerful and emotional photos, but those were the times it also felt wrong," he says. "I didn't want to miss certain moments, like when Hannah was told all the cancer had gone—I wanted to be there experiencing it for myself rather than through a lens."
When I speak to them, the pair finish each other's sentences; living through cancer treatment has made being together seem effortless. There were good days, like the rare picnic Hannah was able to stomach on the day this serene photo was taken. "Those three days were really precious to me," Hannah says. "I called them my euphoric days, because it was such an amazing thing to feel well."
But, as is the nature of cancer treatment, the majority of their time was spent inside, in different waiting rooms. During one week-long stay in an isolation room at hospital, they killed time marathon-watching Storage Hunters. It wasn't a comfortable week—there were "no windows, no ventilation; nothing but a chair for me to sit on, which had a spring that went up my arse," Johnny remembers. He captured the seemingly endless week with a striking image of Hannah propped up on hospital pillows, her head turned away from the camera.
Despite staying optimistic throughout the course of her treatment, there were dark times. "Sometimes I would go into my dark hole crying, and Johnny would run away to grab his camera to make sure he got the picture," Hannah says. "I would think, 'for God's sake, do you have to take the picture right now?' But looking back, seven months on in remission, I'm quite glad he did."
It's Cancer is on exhibition as part of Exordium, a show by Falmouth University's BA Photography graduates at The Old Truman Brewery in London, from Friday June 24 until Monday June 27. Below are more of Johnny's photos from the series.
Follow Yasmin Jeffery on Twitter.