Sat in a restaurant for my 30th birthday, my mum Madge produces an enormous, heavy box. Inside is one of my favourite gifts to date – prints of every single photograph I have taken over ten years. They document me wearing dungarees and a super small kids Spiderman sweatshirt as a 23-year-old fashion student, lighting candles in a church in Barcelona and some dodgy German exchange student haircuts. There is also the first photograph of me and Greg together.
I think a lot about how to document this time in my life. There is a weight to every image and film because I am filled with a deep nostalgia for the present moment. I often feel like I’m watching a film of my own life, a reel full of memories to desperately try to not forget later.
Whenever I take a photograph of Greg, he will joke “here comes the panic picture!”. I will laugh and say of course not but yes – of course, it is. I am panicked that these images will be the only way Dali and Bay will be able to access Greg and our life as a family. I am panicked that I will forget how this feels, like I’m living on the edge of the world. I have already forgotten so many tiny details of my life, I don’t want to forget this.
The question of whether photography is a true representation of reality doesn’t need another go at explaining, there are plenty of people who have written about it much better than I ever could, but I am interested in this in terms of trauma and illness. It’s said that history is written by those who win the battle but whatever happens in our particular fight, I want to be the historian who documents it.
I was very aware of how heavily I curated our reality when I was putting together my crowdfunding campaign Give4Greg. My task was very practical but also heavily influenced by the emotional need to gain back some control over our lives. The researcher in me turned my desperate desire to save Greg into a job – I couldn’t understand the cancer terminology being thrown at us but I understand marketing. I analysed all of the most successful fundraising pages, even contacting them for tips. I was looking to raise an inordinate amount of money so I needed to get it right. All of the best campaigns use sunny, family images with everyone smiling but I realised in among my thousands of photographs, I didn’t have one picture of us as a whole family so would have to create one.
Greg was due to start chemo mid-December and there was a chance he could lose all his hair immediately so the day before his first session, I had to create our image.
I’ve had so many people comment on this image, that it’s a beautiful family picture but behind the scenes is a very stressed Greg who is angry that I’m making him do this when he just wants to relax before his body is pumped full of poison. Add to the mix two incredibly fractious girls who are tired and hungry (all parents will know this is always a winning combination when you want small children to comply). Leading the charge is me as the tearful, bossy art director who is worried about losing light and if we are looking happy enough in this self-inflicted hell. You also can’t see Greg’s family behind the camera with puppets trying to get Bay to stop crying.
There is so little truth in this image. I often think about how truthfully to document this time, how hard everything is. That’s not what photography seems to be about in this period of time on earth, the images we share with each other are of fun nights out, colourful cocktails, good hair days, running shoes, romantic dates, nutritious food. Is there a place for showing others contexts in photography on social media or is that the ultimate ‘U ok Hun?’
Saying that, would anyone even want to look at these images?! I think about when Greg was first in hospital, he didn’t eat anything for ten days and had already lost a huge amount of weight. When he got up from the bed, I saw his ribs jutting out of his hospital gown. He was 8st 2lb and diagnosed with malnutrition. I wanted to take a picture but it all felt a bit too macabre.
I’ve taken pictures of Greg having chemo. Some of the people around us have seemed shocked by this but if you look on Instagram, there are hundreds of images of people in chairs hooked up to IVs. Not quite the dream community you aspire to be in but still reassuring that this is not just happening to you.
I love this black and white picture of Greg and I but what is going on around us is a nightmare. It is taken in the oncology unit at Southampton University Hospital. Greg had spent the night there after doctors were worried about pains he was having. In the bed next to us is a man being read his last rites by a priest, in the bed opposite is a man vomiting blood. Greg is at least 30 years younger than anyone in the room and I am beyond scared. To me, our faces say ‘I am numb and I have no idea how to process any of this’ but my mum thought it was the loveliest picture she had seen of us together.
I feel like I am in the Blair Witch Project (not a great feeling, I didn’t sleep with fear for two nights after watching it because I was shown a bootleg copy that had no credits at the end so I thought IT WAS REAL). The character Joshua talks about using a camera as a shield from fear:
“It’s not the same on film is it? I mean, you know it’s real, but it’s like looking through the lens gives you some sort of protection from what’s on the other side.”
There is a part of me that is documenting this part of my life because I’m too scared to just live it through my own eyes. To watch it through a lens or through writing affords me a distance that I don’t have in most moments.
My hope is that Dali and Bay can use these photographs and words as inspiration to live authentically. I want them to be capable of experiencing the full spectrum of emotions that they will face without being afraid to show them.
I want to document the hard stuff because there is such a void of stories in the world from my perspective as cancer carer. There may be a stigma about showing these parts to yourself but this is still our life. We still have to go to Tesco’s to buy four different types of milk because everyone in our house is so fussy. If you are lucky to be alive long enough, you’re going to get hit with some kind of trauma. That doesn’t mean that you have a bad life, it means you have an opportunity to live authentically without a filter – although I must admit, cancer does look better through Clarendon on Instagram.