Photographing His Own Cancer Treatment: ‘A Hell I Wasn’t Ready For’
Mark Richards thought he was done being a photojournalist. Then he had a rare cancer diagnosed. He had devoted his life to documenting the world, but now he wanted to tell his own story.
“The project was thrust upon me,” Mr. Richards, 63, said from his home in San Rafael, Calif.
In a series of photographs called “Darkness at Noon: My Time in Radiation,” Mr. Richards chronicles his time in treatment with the raw intimacy of personal perspective. His photographs range from being strapped down in a CT scanner to self-portraits showing the emotional toll of radiation.
Last year, Mr. Richards began feeling excruciating pain, the kind “that made you want to kill yourself,” he recalled. The pain affected his trigeminal nerve, which is the largest nerve that runs through the face and is responsible for biting and chewing. It also affects the tongue and taste buds.
Doctors struggled to figure out what was causing the pain. Mr. Richards’s case eventually went before a tumor board, where various doctors assessed the symptoms and scans. It was discovered that he had salivary cancer.
The cancer was growing up along his nerve.
“And the other end of that nerve is your brain,” Mr. Richards said. “It’s like the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”
After multiple surgeries, Mr. Richards lost some ability to taste and fully swallow. These days when he takes his medication, he has to take extra care to focus or the pills will get stuck under his tongue.
“But that wasn’t the worst part,” he said. “I thought it was.”
In March, Mr. Richards started radiation.
“That was a hell I wasn’t ready for,” he said. The pain was so bad, he became suicidal.
Mr. Richards endured 33 sessions, five days a week straight through the treatment. The effects of radiation continued after the treatment was complete. He said it took him another two weeks to start to return to some sort of normalcy.
“It just took everything out of me,” Mr. Richards said, pausing to let some tears pass. “Even now I have to lay in bed a lot. It’s an effect that takes every part of you and reduces you.”
Photography had been a steadying force for Mr. Richards for decades, so he turned to it as a “coping mechanism,” he said. While in treatment, he had a split vision of what his therapy might look like to the outside world — a world of machines, drips, M.R.I.’s. “Ordinary,” he said.
“But that ain’t the way it felt,” he said. He picked up his iPhone and started taking pictures. “I thought, you have this iPhone, this tool, it seems so obvious to me.”
He used the Hipstamatic app to filter through his emotions.
“I pulled them back and gave them the mood I wanted: This is what I feel, an otherworldliness,” he said. “I’m trying to transmit emotion rather than reality.”
Mr. Richards took most of the photographs himself on his phone. Sometimes he employed the help of the nurses around him, instructing them to take a photograph from different angles.
A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Richards had focused mostly on photojournalism throughout his career, photographing for Time and Newsweek. He started out as a war photographer in Afghanistan in 1983.
But this assignment was personal.
“This is a more pure form in a way, it’s not that much different than what I did,” he said.
For now, every day is different. Some days he has more energy than others. And last week, he had another round of scans to see if the radiation had done the trick. But before that, it was one day at a time.
“I go through periods of energy and non-energy,” he said. “I’m going to try to run today, so I’m focused.”
Mr. Richards is hoping this series of photographs is a one-time thing.
“I’m not a planning guy, this was an intuitive, emotional time,” he said. “If it comes back, I’ll do it again. I hope this is a little phase in my life.”