Therapeutic Photography – Day 2 – Jeff Harris
My cancer diagnosis turned my life upside down. I no longer had the ability to go out on a professional assignment but I had the five minutes in my day that it takes to execute a self-portrait. This simple little project became a lifeline to me. When you are going to the hospital for 25 days in a row of radiation, it’s hard to stay creative. I used a tripod to set up the following image… I like it because it feels like something more out of a science fiction movie then a hospital.
My orthopedic surgeon warned me that the procedure to remove the grapefruit-sized tumour in my pelvis was as complex as they come. It would be an eleven-hour surgery involving two doctors working on both sides of my body simultaneously. They would remove my tailbone, half my sacrum, and a chunk of my pelvis. More problematic, they would sever my sciatic nerve, leaving me permanently paralyzed in my left leg.
The pressing question on my brain through all of this was, “can I have pictures taken of me in the operating room?”
It’s funny this need that photographers have, to experience life through a lens, and that hunger for photographic proof. For me it was like, well, fuck, this operation needs to happen, and I’d like to get some photos as well. I was on Frame #30, there were only six shots left on the roll when I handed my camera over to the doctor. I wondered, what are the chances that (a) he will remember to take photos and (b) that the photos won’t be total garbage. But he nailed it. Every frame turned out great, and these pictures have helped me make sense of my devastating surgery.
I was in the hospital for thirty days straight, seven of those days in surgical step down where I was unable to move. I was NPO (without both food and liquids) for over three weeks and I lost 25 pounds. As I write this 13 months later, I still have three open wounds on my back that have not finished healing. My doctor had told me that it would take up to two years for my body to “normalize” after such an invasive procedure. I have lost both my mobility and independence in the potential prime of my career.
My advice to anyone going through a big challenge like cancer, is try to think of something even bigger and more stressful to preoccupy yourself with so that and the cancer becomes the smaller problem. I planned an exhibition of “3,653 Self-Portraits” in Brookfield Place, perhaps Toronto’s most beautiful and well-travelled exhibition space, and the opening was two days after I was discharged from the hospital. The following photo shows me being interviewed by Fashion Television’s Glen Baxter. I was still confined to a wheelchair and in an extremely fragile state.
Currently I’m spending about 16 hours of my day lying down, and 8 hours up (that’s the direct inverse of my life prior to surgery). I have a home care nurse who changes my dressings every other day, and I’m slowly making improvements in rehab as I learn to walk again. It is profoundly frustrating to watch time pass by, but my photography has helped me measure my recovery both physically and emotionally.