No one has captured a glimpse into the largely invisible world of metastatic breast cancer more compellingly than photographer Angelo Merendino. Angelo began documenting his wife Jen’s illness photographically shortly after her diagnosis in 2008. It was just five months after they had gotten married that Angelo and Jen entered the world of cancer. After a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and reconstructive surgery the couple celebrated their first anniversary with the news that Jen was cancer free. Two years after that, Jen had a metastasis to her liver and hip. Eventually the cancer went to her brain, and she died.
Angelo illustrated what it was like to endure ongoing treatments, side effects, emotional distress, compromised function, and the difficulties and uplifts of everyday living. He writes on his website: “My photographs show this daily life. They humanize the face of cancer, on the face of my wife.” Ever present behind the camera Angelo also documented the sadness, isolation, and love of a couple that would share a lifetime of experience in barely a few years.
Angelo Merendino’s pictures eventually came together as a photo-documentary called, “The Battle We Didn’t Choose: My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer.” He shared the collection on his Website and in select venues while he continued to take new pictures and post them periodically on his Facebook page.
Watching the progression of Jen’s illness through these photographs gave viewers a chance to bear witness to Jen’s suffering, to the authenticity of her experience, to an essence of the human condition. It also filled many of us with deep sadness and a sense of dread. I personally had seen the face of cancer before, up close. Too many times I witnessed its cruelty and the equally dire effects of its treatment. None of this was easy. Neither was learning of Jen’s death in December of 2011. She left a community of people, both virtual and real, in grief.
CNN’s Photo Blog shared Angelo’s collection with the nation a few weeks later, and comments poured in about the power of the images, which shared parts of life that were difficult and intimate. Jen’s life with cancer, captured on film, shared something true, simultaneously beautiful and heart wrenching. Too often these are the aspects of cancer that are hidden behind normalizing gestures or a strong and courageous front. Instead of looking away, people wanted to acknowledge.
In July 2011 “The Gathering Place: A Caring Community for those Touched by Cancer” contacted Angelo Merendino about exhibiting his photo-essay for from July through September 2012. Angelo selected 60 photographs from among his collection of more than 500 to be featured in the show. He edited them, printed them, sent them to The Gathering Place for approval, after which he framed and transported the photographs from New York City to Westlake, Ohio. He also provided food and wine for the opening reception and hired a photographer to document the event. After a successful opening, The Gathering Place pulled the exhibit. According to the announcement,
“Some of our volunteers (many of whom are cancer survivors) and our participants found it very difficult and emotionally upsetting to see the exhibition. Because our mission at The Gathering Place is to provide a peaceful, healing and nurturing environment where our participants feel supported and encouraged, we have chosen to remove the exhibit so as to not add to the emotional challenges a cancer journey creates.”
Angelo Merendino’s photographs are compelling, compassionate, and real. They are a vision of breast cancer that is too often sugar-coated with platitudes, sassy t-shirts, fun-filled fundraising galas. For some, this reality is too much to bear. But until we as a society are willing to see cancer for what it is, our capacity to support the diagnosed will always be limited.
I am honored to include some of Angelo Merendino’s images in the forthcoming paperback edition of my book, “Pink Ribbon Blues” to be released in October 2012. They will be included under the heading “Beyond the Culture: Everyday Life With Breast Cancer.”
UPDATE: Merendino’s exhibit of “My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer” will be displayed at the Convivium33 Gallery in Cleveland, OH.
Exhibit dates: Friday, July 27 –Sunday, August 26, 2012
Opening Reception: Friday, July 27, 2012 from 6 pm –10 pm
Convivium33 Gallery 1433 East 33rd Street, 216.881.7838 or www.josaphatartshall.com
Gallery Hours: Monday and Wednesday: 6pm -9pm, Saturday and Sunday: 10am- 2pm