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The Selfless Art Of Caregiving

Filed by KOSU News in Health.
April 19, 2012

At some point in every artist’s journey, art will imitate life. For photographer Annabel Clark, that came early and it came with a fury.

A few days before Christmas in 2002, Clark’s mother, actress Lynn Redgrave, was diagnosed with breast cancer. As the pair struggled with the diagnosis, they decided to turn the disease into a photographic journal — “to make it less scary.” It was a defining moment in many ways. Not only did it bring mother and daughter together in ways they could never imagine, but it also made Clark the photographer she is today.

Clark was 15 when she took her first photography class. Like many, she spent countless hours in the darkroom, slowly coaxing images out from chemicals and onto paper. “It was a very cliched moment, the image appearing in the dark room … but it was my first class that I could picture myself doing outside of school.”

She was 20 years old and studying photography at Parsons The New School for Design in Brooklyn when her mother came to her with the news. Throughout the following year, Clark would document her mother’s recovery from a full mastectomy, chemotherapy treatments and radiation — in part to fulfill her documentary thesis project. But the photography did more than earn Clark a degree.

“[It] was my therapy,” she says. “The lens allowed me to look at her changed body, to make sense of the endless treatments and ultimately to be closer to her.”

Clark’s intimate images and Redgrave’s candid words were compiled in book form and published in the fall of 2004.

The strength of the project lies in the sincerity of the two women. While Clark dared to document intimate moments of vulnerability and hopelessness, Redgrave fearlessly chronicled her internal journey.

One would think Clark would have desired a creative reprieve after this project, but, in fact, she says the experience piqued her interest in learning how other people are coping with similar matters. From 2004 to 2008, Clark undertook a project simply titled “Caregivers”: a series featuring family members and the loved ones they are caring for.

“With other people, it was challenging for me,” Clark says. “My mother gave me full reign. With these families, I had to get their story without overstepping boundaries. I didn’t document their day-to-day caregiving because it felt like that was too private for them.”

Instead, Clark chose portraiture. “Even though I was photographing my mother [with a documentary approach], there were moments where it was just the two of us — and those moments were ours,” she explains.”So I didn’t want to be the third person in the scene.”

> VIEW PHOTO GALLERY

The photographic project deftly highlights the universality of aging. It is evident that this matter crosses all socio-economic strata. “Most people will have to deal with an aging parent who can’t take care of themselves anymore,” says Clark.

She says her camera has remained a healing tool in the aftermath of her mother’s death in May 2010. The empathetic responses to her work have inspired Clark to teach a class, now in its sixth year, at a local nonprofit that provides free art workshops to people with cancer and other chronic illnesses.

“The workshop feels like a legacy of the project that we [Clark and Redgrave] created together,” Clark says, “and I am inspired by the way that the participants use photography to tell their own stories of survivorship.”

Editor’s Note: A series called “Family Matters” on NPR’s Morning Edition explores the lives of three multigenerational households struggling with issues of money, duty and love. It’s about the stresses and joys of caring — it’s life.

If you live in a multigenerational household, we would like to see what your life looks like. Upload your candid photos here or share on Twitter and Instagram with the tag #nprfamilymatters. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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