On our first evening in Romania, Dr. Ana-Maria Forsea took Louise and me to a restaurant next to the Vietnamese embassy. During the meal, I had a conversation with Dr. Forsea's husband, who shared a story about his wife.
"Last year, we were in a supermarket, and Ana-Maria walked past a young lady in one of the aisles. She approached this stranger and informed her that she'd seen a mole on her skin and advised her to visit the hospital the following day. The mole was cancerous, and after treatment, the woman is now in remission. That is the kind of person she is, this is how her mind works."
While in Romania, we met and photographed three of Ana-Maria's patients as part of a project that aims to highlight the challenges faced by people living with skin diseases.
hair is seen as a girl's wealth
------------ ALEXANDRA G.
"Hair is seen as a girl's wealth. I tried to replace my hair with different wigs, similar in colour to mine. None of this made me feel better. I hated my body, I hated myself"
Our first shoot was with Alexandra, who was diagnosed with Alopecia at the age of 2. She lost all her hair and continued to wear a wig on her wedding day. When she met the man who would one day become her husband, his friends told him, "You know she is wearing a wig; she is bald underneath." He responded, "I know." During the time we spent in Alexandra's Bucharest apartment, the strength of their relationship and the depth of their love for each other were beautiful to witness. "I don't have many friends," Alexandra told me. "I don't either." I thought to myself, not as brave or as honest as the woman I would be photographing that day.
It was clear that Alopecia has a massive impact on Alexandra's life; the stories she shared with me about being bullied by students and teachers as a young child were heartbreaking. The courage of people like Alexandra, to openly share their stories after a childhood spent being bullied and stigmatized, is beyond admirable.
One of the things that amazes me during these kinds of shoots is the willingness of an individual to embrace what sounds like a ridiculous idea. We asked Alexandra if we could bury her in the wigs of her youth. "Of course," she said, motioning to the living room floor, asking if we could do it there. My partner, Louise, arranged the wigs across her face with only one of Alexandra's eyes visible. As she lay on the ground under this symbolic blanket of hair, I asked her to look scared. Her one visible eye widened, and the photograph we created together is genuinely one of my favorite ever photographs. It is one of my all-time favorites because, to me at least, it tells a story on multiple levels; it makes you think, but also because of the connection we made while working together that day.
Our second shoot was with Eugen, who lives in a town 100 kilometers west of Bucharest. I knew he was a busy man long before we arrived. We had exchanged brief messages via Facebook during the months leading up to the shoot. He would send me pictures of dump trucks loading grain onto a lorry in his yard to illustrate his hectic schedule. I would periodically message him regarding logistics for our shoot, and he would reply, "Working all day. So sorry." Eugen is not a busy man by choice. He inherited a great deal of responsibility after his mother died of melanoma, and his father was fatally wounded due to a freak accident at the truck yard. He inherited his father's business and the role of parent to his sister, who herself has been recently diagnosed with melanoma. "Life can be cruel," Eugen told me when we stood together in the shade of his favorite truck, escaping the blazing sunlight he naturally associates with skin cancer.
We all went back to Eugen's apartment so he could change out of his work clothes. His apartment was sparsely furnished, as if the intense pace of his life, from teenage diagnosis through grief and mounting responsibilities, had made him incapable of breathing long enough to think about hanging pictures or buying a sofa. As he walked from his bedroom toward the bathroom, I saw him without his t-shirt on and observed more scars than I had imagined him having. I asked if I could photograph his chest and back. "Sure," he said, just like Alexandra during our first shoot. "Where?" He asked, with no time to waste.
When we finished our shoot, he said he wanted to buy us dinner, but in a way that suggested he wouldn't actually join us; it wasn't clear. He drove ahead and took us to a local restaurant, spoke to the waiter, and thanked us in such a meaningful and kind way that made me wish we could stay and spend more time with him. Then he literally ran down the road toward his car. There were more trucks to load and unload before Eugen's day was over. When we finished our meal, the waiter told us that the bill had already been settled. We left a generous tip that represented more than just an appreciation for the meal we had eaten. As we drove back to Bucharest, I thought a lot about Eugen, and, as is often the case after interactions like this, my faith in humanity was restored.
In the past I used my art to explore the relationship between mind and body but the physical and emotional impact of having skin cancer left me exhausted and overwhelmed. But during my intense treatments I was so exhausted I could not summon the strength to be creative.
------------ Lulia M.
On location in Tanzania
Our third and final shoot was with Lulia, a ceramist whose love of art has helped her through the seemingly endless, all-consuming treatment for her skin cancer. We had prepared to bury Lulia's head in clay for her main photograph, but we were not prepared for the ceramic props she had created during her art school years. We photographed her posing with a clay mold of her back, a quarter section of her torso, and an entire glass mold of her chest. Like so many people with skin diseases we've photographed, Lulia was both fearless and generous in front of the lens, revealing the scars and bruises left by her skin disease.
Two days after our shoot with Lulia, Ana-Maria called me and asked how the shoot went. I told her it went well. Ana-Maria said she had called Lulia and asked herself how the shoot went, but also to tell her something much more important: the final test results had come through, and Lulia was now cured of her lymphoma. Ana-Maria said it would have been great if she had delivered that news during the shoot.
It is people like Ana-Maria, Lulia, Alexandra, and Eugen who make the work we do so special. We encounter people who educate and inspire us on every shoot, which gives us a great sense of hope.