Cancer Connections        

Cancer Connections was the result of five years of thought and action. What began as a quiet family discussion in Mississauga, Ontario, blossomed–first into a photographic exhibit in Toronto, then into photo exhibits across the country. Along the way, we launched a website and, then, we brought it all together in a book of black-and-white photographs and stories, a celebration of cancer.

Celebrating cancer? It seems to be an oxymoron, and yet that is exactly what the book does: it reveals, it examines, it unfurls a tapestry of what cancer looks like, through the eyes of Canadians who have met it, up close and personal. And the revelation is uplifting and inspiring.

A few years ago, Toronto photographer Andrew Stawicki was watching a TV documentary on cancer with his family. His children prodded, "Daddy, why haven't you done a project on cancer? It's everywhere. You should be doing something! "Andrew knew they had a point–his photography group, PhotoSensitive, had looked at many difficult issues, from the homeless in downtown Toronto to HIV/AIDS in Africa, but cancer? Where would he start? How could you do justice to something that touches so many people and takes on so many different forms?

But then, on a visit to an elementary school, one of the students asked Andrew what kinds of topics PhotoSensitive tackled. Andrew started by explaining that he believed black-and-white photographs have a special power–to show the faces of people and reveal their stories. Then he blurted out, "Cancer, for instance. That's a big topic. How many of you know someone with cancer?"

Every child in the classroom put up their hand.Then they began calling out, "My mom had cancer ... My dad did brother ... my little sister ... my grandpa ... my neighbour hockey coach ... my cousin ... my teacher ..." That sealed the deal for Andrew. If every child in a classroom knew someone with cancer–well, that was a good reason to go forward. At first, it was going to be a project that the photographers at PhotoSensitive would take on. But that changed. For previous PhotoSensitive projects, we turned to professional photographers for submissions, but because of Andrew's experience with the school children, we decided Cancer Connections should be wide open. Anyone could submit a photograph showing their experience through a variety of images of cancer. First, a trickle, then a hundred, then a thousand images came in. Patients, families, friends, neighbours: everyone sent in pictures.

The goal was to have submissions from across the country. We worked with local Canadian Cancer Society offices to put the word out. They did an amazing job, soliciting pictures, booking speakers, suggesting the perfect locations for the outdoor shows, helping us in each city along the way. In the end, photo exhibits were held in Toronto, Charlottetown, Montreal, Regina, Winnipeg, Saint John, Halifax, St. John's, Vancouver, Calgary, and finally, in Ottawa, where we held an incredible, national celebration. Cancer Connections grew far bigger than we had ever envisioned (and led to subsequent projects like Prostate Cancer). Looking back, there were three reasons for that success. First, this was a show made by ordinary Canadians: anyone could send in a photo. Then, these ordinary Canadians sent us extraordinarypictures: they really captured the feeling of people going throughcancer. And finally, we held all the exhibits outside, in public places where people would walk by and be caught up in it all. A businessman on his way to work, a student on her way to class, a family on its way to a soccer game. It was accessible to everyone. Beyond that, everyone wanted to share: share their stories, share in other people's stories.

As the project made its way across the country, hundreds of photographs found a home in the exhibits, from PEI to British Columbia. The photographers sent in short, personal stories with their pictures and those became captions. Sometimes the stories would expand into longer, in-depth interviews. Twelve of those are included in the book. And at the heart of it all are the photographs: startling, shocking, memorable, intimate. They will stay with you long after you turn the final page. There are pictures of bare breasts — one tattooed with a sunflower; young children undergoing chemo; adults with hurting bodies and healing scars; faces full of fatigue, eyes full of hope. In each, there is a sense of dignity, patience, and courage. When weasked people why they chose to reveal such personal moments of their cancer experience, the answers were as numerous as the photographs submitted.

One person said, "I wanted to reveal it. I have to share it so people can understand. So much of cancer is private. So much takes place behind closed doors. If you saw me on the street, you'd never guess I have cancer. These pictures show what we deal with and how we cope and what the face of cancer and the face of love looks like."

And from Keith Branscombe, a survivor of colon cancer, "Taking pictures of cancer did something for me. I took daily pictures of myself and then I shared them. And now, it's in the light of day. It's part of life. Everyone should see it and meet it and not be frightened by it. When I stood beside my photo at the Toronto exhibit, with other people and other people's photos,surrounded by so-called strangers, I realized: we are all connected. We are in this together and that feels comforting. That's the power of true documentary photography. "In the beginning we'd hoped, at the end we knew: Cancer Connections connected us as Canadians and as human beings, and as a cancer family.

Going through something as potentially devastating or frightening as cancer is a very private thing. And yet here were Canadians, from across the country, revealing themselves or someone they loved through pictures, telling their stories, sharing their pain and joy. This project gave people places and ways to spend time, see the images, find something that might help them. As you look through these photos, be prepared to be moved. Cancer Connections was – and is – an all-inclusive, no-holds-barred revelation of what cancer looks like, through the eyes of those who have experienced it first-hand. We Canadians, often teased for our tendency to shy away from the limelight, have exposed, in beautiful black-and-white portraits, our collective cancer soul – all of its painful scars and bare breasts and shockingly thinbodies and losses combined with faces full of hope and courageand determination and love.

Although the big exhibit photographs are put away, the spirit of Cancer Connections lives on, on the website and in the book. Today – and years from now – you can hold the book in your hands and, we hope, be inspired and comforted. If you're told, or someone you know is told, "You have cancer," this will give you strength. You can say, "Look at all the people who looked cancer straight in the eye!" In an oblique way, this was deeply in line with the ideals of social change photography, always at the heart of the collective.

We dedicated Cancer Connections to our friend, writer June Callwood, who was a guiding light for PhotoSensitive. She was in Princess Margaret Hospital, fighting cancer, when we began Cancer Connections, and she told Andrew, "Go for it. It's high time someone did something really inspired." She believed in helping others and making connections and we think she would have been pleased with the scope and spirit of this project.

Through the contribution of countless "ordinary" Canadians, we have created an extraordinary canvas of cancer. Cancer Connections celebrates the human spirit and all it can accomplish even when dealing with — and perhaps often because of – great challenges, and the love that so often accompanies loss. At the Montreal exhibit, Andrew saw a woman weeping quietly, sitting alone on the grass. When she stopped crying and looked up and spotted him, he walked over and extended a hand, introducing himself. "Thank you," she said simply. "Thank you. I thought my mother had died but her photograph is here – a wonderful black-and-white portrait of my mother is here. She is still alive. "Alive and with a story to tell.