© Nancy Borowick
Picture stories about people fighting cancer are common and often predictable, with an attention to medical procedure and suffering, and a tendency to leave viewers with little more than a “there but for the grace of God” feeling.
But Nancy Borowick takes a different approach in her documentary about her parents, who are struggling with the disease at the same time. Hers isn’t a story about the suffering and dying, but about the relationship of two people sustaining life and love.
“It’s extraordinary work. And one of the things that’s interesting about [it] is [that] there is an intimacy,” says James Estrin, co-editor of The New York Times Lens blog, which posted Borowick’s story in October. “There’s no using people as symbols, there’s not playing up suffering, it’s just well-rounded people that you see.”
Borowick has been photographing her parents for the past year, since her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2012. Her mother, meanwhile, has had a relapse of breast cancer.
“I just assume people know [that] there is the sadness, there is the anger and death is on our doorstep. But for me that’s not what our experience has been like,” Borowick says. “There’s a lot of joy, happiness and silliness … because we have this awareness of time, there’s no point in spending it sad and depressed. We’re trying to do our best to cope, and enjoy the time left together. I’m trying to capture that.”
Since it was posted on Lens blog, the story has been published in The New York Times Metro section, and in the International New York Times. But Borowick didn’t intend it for publication when she started. She meant only “to have a record of my family, for future generations, and for my memories,” she explains.
Photographing her parents also gave her a way to spend more time with them, and cope with her own anguish. “Shooting like it’s an assignment gives me a bit of an emotional break from what’s happening in front of me. It’s therapeutic for me.”
Borowick had previously documented her mother’s struggle with breast cancer while studying photography at the International Center of Photography in New York City. That project ended when the cancer went into remission. When her father, Howie, was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2012, “he asked my mother if [she thought] I would be interested in photographing him.
“I think my dad wanted his story told, too,” Borowick surmises. “Maybe it was secretly his way to spend more time with me, but I wanted to spend more time with him.”
Her access “is a photojournalist’s dream,” she says. Giving their complete trust, her parents imposed no conditions. Only once has her father expressed annoyance at being photographed.
“It totally shocked me,” Borowick says. “Then I explained that I wanted to document everything: the good, the bad, the ugly, the silly, the happy.”
But the family ties and her parents’ needs pose a challenge. “I do this dance figuring out: Am I a photographer at this moment? Am I a daughter at this moment? Am I a shoulder at this moment? I want to be all of those things at the same time for them.”
She has continued to shoot freelance assignments for Newsday and several other publications, but has put other personal projects on hold to devote as much time as she can to her parents. And she carries her camera at all times when she’s with them. “I’m always taking pictures.”
Borowick shoots with a Nikon D700, mostly with a 35mm f/1.4 lens (she also carries an 85mm lens and a 24-70mm zoom lens). She relies on available light. “I shoot a lot in the early morning and late afternoon, which provides me with gorgeous and gentle natural light beaming in through the windows,” she says.
On the two occasions when nurses tried to stop Borowick from taking pictures, her newspaper experience kicked in. “I kept repeating, ‘The oncologist approved it,’ and I kept taking pictures until [a nurse] made me stop,” she says. “I take pictures first and try to figure out [if it’s OK] second.” Her mother also advocated that she be allowed to photograph her parents during medical procedures.
Her emphasis is mostly on her parents’ relationship, and how they live with illness day to day. The signature image of the project shows them taking their weekly chemotherapy treatments together, sitting side-by-side in big chairs with IV drips. Her father broods, while her mother comforts him almost absent-mindedly with her hand and reads a magazine.
In another image that Borowick shot in her parents’ kitchen, her dry-humored father puts on a stony face and breaks into a dance to cheer up her mom. “As you can imagine, the energy has been low around the house,” Borowick says.
That’s evident in the images of her father napping, but Borowick also shows her parents as any devoted middle-aged couple, celebrating Howie’s fifty-eighth birthday at home, for instance, and standing arm-in-arm in a shallow swimming pool while on vacation in Florida. In another image, Borowick’s parents muster the strength to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. (She positioned a camera in a tree for a bird’s-eye view of the ceremony.)
“The wedding was a major distraction for everyone,” says Borowick, who pushed up the wedding date because of her parents’ illnesses.
Part of her process of treating the project like an assignment, even though she didn’t intend to publish it, was showing it to a few photo editors whom she’d met as a student at ICP. Borowick explains that she wanted their opinions “to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.”
Early last summer, she submitted an edit to the My Story competition at the New York Photo Festival, “to see if anyone cared,” she says. Estrin, who was one of the jurors, called her in July to talk about the possibility of featuring the project on Lens blog.
“I tread carefully with this project,” Borowick says. “I trusted that The New York Times would treat it with the respect that you would want.”
The project drew high praise, and an outpouring of good wishes for Borowick and her family. “I told my parents they’ve given me this amazing gift, sharing this world of theirs with me,” Borowick says. “They responded, ‘You’ve given us this gift, too.’ It’s strange that there can be these silver linings in this crappy situation.”
A week after the Lens blog post, Howie got news that his cancer was back after a brief remission. Borowick continues to photograph her parents, uncertain how much longer they will live, but determined to spend all the time she can with them.
Editor’s note: Howie Borowick died on December 7, 2013, as this story was going to press. His family is asking people to direct donations to the Lustgarten Foundation for pancreatic cancer research. “While he loved flowers and would even pull off the road so we could smell lilacs in the neighbor’s yard, he loved life more so we want to find a cure for this awful disease,” Nancy Borowick says.
Nancy Borowick Photo Gallery