ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Best of 2014 Honoree: Nancy Borowick

By August 6, 2015March 6th, 2017Best of 2014
Nancy Borowick tackled the full range of her parents’ experience as they both faced cancer, from the pain and challenges of treatment to their bravery in the face of mortality to their shifting dynamic as patient and caregiver in the months leading to her father’s passing in December 2013.

© Nancy Borowick

“I decided to start photographing my parents because I wanted to have a record, or a memory, of this time we shared together. We knew time was limited, and I wanted to hold on to everything I could,” Borowick explains. “My parent’s oncologist says that you can really see the true version of a person when they are facing their mortality. I really wanted to capture this essence in my images.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Nancy Borowick: I’ve been working professionally as a photographer since 2010, so four years. However, I’ve been shooting since high school, in 2000.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

NB: It will be one year this fall!

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

NB: I heard about the community through Tom Donley in New York while at PDN PhotoPlus Expo at the Javits Center.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

NB: The new community of photographers that I’ve gotten to know and connect with.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

NB: Tom Donley!

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business?

NB: This past year, I haven’t taken the full advantage of what ASMP has to offer. Going forward I certainly will.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

NB: I love photographing people and working towards a level of intimacy and trust, so that I can become an invisible spectator.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

NB: My sneakers =). It’s so important to have good footwear with this job. I’m always on my feet, carrying tons of gear for hours on end, so I’ve learned this lesson the hard way!

ASMP: What is unique about your approach? What sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

NB: I find that I’m able to engage and connect with people, especially strangers, pretty quickly and that allows me the access I need to tell their story. I feel very comfortable in these kinds of situations and I see that as a good business asset.

ASMP: How did you arrive at the decision to photograph the difficult and emotional experience of your parents going through cancer treatments? How long did you work on this project?

NB: I’m still working on this project. I decided to start photographing my parents because I wanted to have a record, or a memory, of this time we shared together. We knew time was limited, and I wanted to hold onto everything I could. By photographing my parents, I was able to be there and be their advocate while also protecting myself by treating the project like an assignment. I was safe behind the lens, and it gave me a little distance, which helped me stay strong and supportive of my family in this terrible time. My parent’s oncologist says that you can really see the true version of a person when they are facing their mortality. I really wanted to capture this essence in my images.

ASMP: What were your goals in starting this project, and did those goals change over time?

NB: My goals were simple: to create this archive of images to remember my parents by, for me, for my siblings and for future generations. I never expected to publish the work, or really share it beyond our family circle, but publishing the project has really been a tremendous gift to all of us. Sharing our story with the world has encouraged the world to share their stories with us, and we feel less alone in this crazy circumstance.

ASMP: Did your relationship with your parents change as you became the documentarian of their illnesses, in addition to being daughter and caretaker?

NB: I think our relationship did change as I photographed them. Firstly, I was spending a lot more time with them than I had in years (really since before college). Secondly, in photographing them, I was really asking them to trust and share with me. The more I knew, the more I could advocate for them and support them. I’m an adult now and it was time for me to step up and help them and care for them the way they cared for me the past 29 years. Their vulnerability in front of me, and my lens, and the world, has been so brave and letting me tell their story has been one of the greatest gifts they have ever given me.

ASMP: Although this series of images documents the pain and challenges of treatment, you’ve also created an extremely intimate portrayal of love. You, with your camera, needed to be “intimate” with your parents in terms of access to them. Please discuss your comfort level with this and your relationship with your parents prior to photographing their illnesses.

NB: By treating this project like an assignment, I applied my experiences as a newspaper photographer to this work. I’ve learned how to navigate getting to know my subjects in a new way, how to interview, how to visualize the story and the images I intend to take. My family has always been close. We have always been open and shared with each other and I’m forever grateful for that. My mom has been dealing with her disease since I was 13 years old. Since then, we have really been very open as a family, so its really just become a part of our lives, and a very familiar topic of conversation around our dinner table. My father’s parents died when he was very young, and my mother lost her father when she was in college, so having a close-knit family has been a very important part of my upbringing. Seeing my parents like this — sick, weak and vulnerable — has not been easy. I have two siblings and the three of us have learned how to switch gears from children to caretakers. While it was not easy, we knew it was what we had to do for our amazing parents. I think early in the project my parents held back a bit, wanting to protect us in a way, but with persistence on my part, they reluctantly gave in because it was my turn, our turn, to take care of them.

ASMP: In your artist statement, you mention that this was one of the most challenging experiences you’ve faced. Please elaborate on these challenges and how you dealt with them.

NB: Death is a part of life, and everyone will one day come to this. At 27, I never thought I would be faced with the realty that both of my parents were dying. Perhaps I lived in an idealistic bubble, thinking they would always be there, but when you are a kid, your world includes them for the most part. It’s been hard, these 18 years, having a mom who was often sick, but she tried not to let that hold her back, so we had a pretty normal childhood. She is an unbelievable pillar of strength, especially now, as she battles her disease and mourns the loss of her husband, my father. My father’s diagnosis was sudden and scary because we were familiar with the statistics of pancreatic cancer: Only 6 percent of people live past five years and most die in the first year. My father was generally healthy his whole life so this completely shocked us, and just like that, both of our parents were in treatment, hooked up to chemotherapy machines, side by side. We were scared and sad, but knew we needed to be strong for both of them, so we stepped up to the plate. I think photographing them protected me from really facing the reality. I was in work mode, photographer mode, and that truly helped me and was therapeutic, if you will. Sharing the work has helped me process as well. It’s amazing and sad how universal our story of cancer really is, and I have felt a world of support, literally, since the project was first published in the New York Times in October 2013.

ASMP: Did you need to compartmentalize or separate yourself from the situation in order to make your images, or did embracing your emotions assist you in capturing the full range of the experience?

NB: I elaborate on this a bit above, but yes, I absolutely compartmentalized and separated myself from the situation in order to make the images. I mean, of course my emotions played an enormous role in my images; this is my family and my life after all. I realized that there was no way I could not be subjective here, but this is a personal project, and of course there is subjectivity. There were moments when I had to step away and think about what, if anything, I wasn’t photographing. Were there moments I didn’t photograph? I’m sure there were, though my memory from that time is a bit hazy at this point. I found that when I wasn’t photographing, I was feeling the reality a lot more. Once I was in the hospital with my parents and my father was going in for a procedure. I spent so much time in the hospital photographing and for that moment I had put down my camera. I watched the nurses struggle to find a vein that had enough blood flowing. I watched, for the first time, without my camera and I got very lightheaded. Before I knew it a nurse was escorting me to a bed in the other room and brought me water. I’ve never fainted before, but maybe that was the direction I was going in. I barely remember that moment, but fortunately my mother came in, camera in hand, and snapped a photo of me resting. I remember her giggling, saying something about the tables being turned, and I laughed with the little energy I had left in my lungs. I always said that photographing my parents protected me, gave me distance and allowed me to really be there with them. It wasn’t until this moment, without the camera, that I realized just how real that was.

ASMP: What impact has this project had on your relationships with family members other than your parents? Did you get any pushback from siblings or other family in regards to photographing your parent’s disease?

NB: I’ve been lucky. My family is very close and we talk about everything. They were very supportive of my photographing my parents, and while at first it took some getting used to, in the end they are all very happy I did it. We get to share these visual memories of our parents, in good times and in bad, and remember moments that maybe, at the time, seemed trivial and small. One image that we are all thankful we have is the one I took at my dad’s funeral. That day is a blur for all of us, and that image gives us a glimpse into just how many people and who was there. It was the first big snowstorm of the season and many people could not attend, yet the temple was full with more than 200 people and it brings us comfort to see that.

ASMP: How did other family members react in the presence of your camera?

NB: I think people were used to me always having my camera. Because of this, no one seemed to really mind or pay any attention. This made photographing these moments easier.

ASMP: Do you feel the work has relevance beyond yourself and immediate family?

NB: Absolutely. When one goes through something like this, you feel like you’re the only person in the world who knows what it feels like. The work has already proven to have relevance beyond our family, with the hundreds of e-mails, letters and messages we received from people around the world thanking us for sharing our very private story in such a public way. People expressed that they too felt alone, but now really felt not only that they knew my family, but also related to the images in many ways. The reality we found was that everyone knows someone with cancer, and while the person with the disease is the actual person who is sick, those around him or her also feel and experience the diagnosis. I think the project has opened up the conversation for many people, and I hope it continues to reach others. At 29, I do not have many friends who are taking care of their sick parents, so this was a way for me to find community outside of my immediate circle of friends.

ASMP: Were there any technical or creative challenges that you needed to address when photographing in the hospital or treatment rooms?

NB: Anyone who has ever photographed in a hospital or treatment room knows just how challenging they can be. They are often small, barren, and lit with harsh fluorescent overhead lighting. Because the project was in black and white, this really only left me with the issue of images looking flat, but after spending enough time in those rooms, I learned how to shoot, and look for that contrast that would help the images. There was also the issue of permission to photograph in the hospital. Some people were OK with it, and others were not. My parents’ oncologist is a big name at his hospital, so that helped and, when I had to, I would mention his name and say he gave me permission (whether or not that mattered). I would wear my camera slung over my shoulder every time I went with my parents, hoping that people would start to recognize me and be familiar with it. I was yelled at a handful of times, but generally people left me alone. Through working at newspapers, I’ve learned that often you have to shoot until someone tells you to stop — and even then, keep shooting until they make you stop. Act like you are allowed to be doing what you are doing and most people won’t say anything.

ASMP: During the time your parents were going through treatment, your then-boyfriend proposed to you. You made the decision to get married quickly as you weren’t sure how much time your parents had. How did this added pressure of planning a wedding affect your photography?

NB: Planning the wedding was a blessing to the family. We all had a lovely distraction from our reality as we put together this event that would be so happy and joyful in such a sad time. Don’t get me wrong, it was super stressful — planning a New York wedding in five-and-a-half months is not an easy feat, but we did it. All of the vendors that we hired understood the situation and expressed that they could be flexible if plans needed to be changed, if the wedding date needed to be moved up. Fortunately it didn’t need to be changed, and both of my parents were there to walk me down the aisle, and to dance with me during the reception. I tried to document the wedding-related moments leading up to the wedding, and at the wedding I had a camera rigged into a tree over my ceremony. I even had a camera hidden under my table during the reception. Hey, I’m a photographer — of course I’m going to take photographs at my own wedding!

ASMP: How has this project has helped you grow as a photographer, both in your personal work and in your work as a newspaper photographer and photojournalist?

NB: This project has taught me a lot about myself as a photographer, but also as a person. Many people have told me that they see what I did as courageous and brave and could not have done the same. I didn’t think I could do it, until I was thrown into it and just started shooting. I would have chosen any other project in the world over this one, but these were the cards we were dealt. This was the life we were given and I knew I had to document it. I’ve learned how to connect with people in a way I never did before. I’ve learned how to open up to my subjects in a way that makes them not only feel more comfortable but also more open with sharing their stories, which allows me to create more thoughtful images. I’ve learned how to edit and fill in the gaps in my projects.

ASMP: Several newspapers, including the New York Times and the New York Daily News, published stories about you photographing your parents’ illnesses and featured your images. What impact has this had on your career?

NB: This project has had a tremendous impact on my career. The piece was published and republished dozens of times in newspapers and on Web sites around the world. In late August my project was projected in one of the evening slideshows on the final night of the Visa pour l’Image Festival in Perpignan, France. I’ve met dozens of editors and photographers who have all seen the work and connect with it on a personal level. Since April, I’ve been freelancing with the New York Times, which has been a dream. It still amazes me just how many people have seen the work and have related to it in some way.

LensCulture recently awarded my project with a Top Five Emerging Talent Award, which included a cash award and exhibition of my work in a travelling show. I hope my Dad is watching all of this from above. This gift that he and my mother have given me — this openness and willingness to share their story — continues to help me in my life and career.

ASMP: The New York Times article mentions an image of your mother during treatment on display at a Chelsea gallery. Initially your mother had trouble with this intimate (and hard to look at) image being displayed so large, but she ultimately came to feel that it could possibly help others dealing with the disease. Do you feel your images are having that impact?

NB: When I first started photographing my mother, years ago, during her second diagnosis, she told me she supported the project because when she went through her first diagnosis, she felt very alone. There weren’t a lot of images out there, not many people were on the Internet yet, and she felt alone and scared. She did not know what to expect, and the surgery and scars were a bit frightening. She felt that if these images would help others, who were once like her, she was happy to do it. I think the images of her bare-chested still shock and upset her because it is not the body she once knew. Cancer takes a toll on one’s body and mind, so I understood why seeing this image up on display was hard to look at. My mom tells me that she reads the comments online whenever the work is republished, and it helps her to know that not only are there others going through what she’s going through, but that the images are connecting with people out there and helping them in some way. I try to share every e-mail and letter I get with her, to show her just how much people have been affected by my parents’ courage and openness.

ASMP: The same story noted that you are often up by 6 am, calling newspaper photo desks around the city in hopes of getting an assignment. Generally speaking, how many assignments do you get in a given week? What kind of subject matter do you get assigned to the most? Do you have a favorite type of story or subject to cover?

NB: Things have changed since the article came out, of course. After my dad died, I took a break from the hustle. I was an emotional wreck and could not bring myself to get back up on that saddle just yet. I needed some time alone and I took that time. Once I felt ready, I started waking up early again and calling the photo desks. At times, I’d get one or two assignments a week. At other times, it was more like four to five. Right now, as I continue to split my time between work and being home with my mom, it’s more like two to three assignments per week, plus other photo jobs for companies and events in the mix. I get assigned a lot of portraiture, restaurants, and human-interest stories. I love covering stories about a single person. I love spending time with a stranger, really getting to know them and then trying to create a visual essay about their life as I see it.

ASMP: How do you plan on building awareness for this work and bringing it to the public?

NB: I’m hoping to exhibit the work. I haven’t quite figured out how to go about that, but I think it would be interesting to show the work and be there, in person, to meet and talk to people about my experience and hear theirs. The work has been republished quite a bit at this point, and now I’d like to look into other options, such as exhibitions and, perhaps, a book. I’d also love to partner with an organization or group so that potential donations could be made toward cancer research.

ASMP: Are you using social media for marketing this project?

NB: I’m a bit slow to social-media activities, but Facebook has really been a great outlet for my project. People have told me that they’ve seen the project being shared on the walls of friends across the world with no relation or connection to me, and in different languages. I’ve tried to become a bit more active on Twitter, as I’ve gained many followers since this project began. Because this project is my life, social media has been a bit overwhelming in the mix because I share my energy ten different ways each day.

ASMP: What’s the most valuable feedback you’ve received about this work from social media?

NB: People say they can really feel the love in my family through the photographs. That has meant a lot to me, because I know how I felt when I was shooting them. I know how I feel in general, and the fact that this comes through feels pretty amazing.

ASMP: Why did you decide to present this series in black and white rather than color?

NB: The project was always black-and-white to me. It wasn’t about the color; it was about the content and context. I didn’t want anything distracting from that. Also, these images feel like memories to me, and memory is in black-and-white in my book. It also helped keep some kind of continuity through the various locations we were shooting in.

ASMP: What type of equipment did you use for this project? Was it similar to the gear you shoot with on assignment?

NB: It was the same gear I use on assignment. I rarely use flash, but I always keep it with me on assignment. In this project, I always relied on natural or ambient lighting and I think I got lucky with that. I tried to keep my lenses simple on this project. I preferred using my 35mm, f/1.4 and occasionally my 85mm, f/1.4. I always keep the 24-70mm, f/2.8 with me and once or twice I used a 20mm, f/2.8, when I knew I would want a really wide shot (specifically the image of my parents, side by side, in their chemo chairs).

ASMP: Have you had any assignments that in any way approached the emotional intensity of this personal project?

NB: Well, nothing will ever be as close as photographing your own life, but I try to use the skills I’ve developed and honed through this project on assignment work. I try to connect with people, however I can. If I’m photographing someone whose house has burned down, while I can’t relate to that, I can relate to their love for their family, their love for their dog, caring for a sick parent. I look for anything to connect with my subjects and ultimately I find something, because we are all human. I recently photographed a girl around my age who just got out of prison. While I can’t relate on that front, we could connect on many other topics and that helped break the ice and really open up the opportunities with my photographs.

ASMP: In addition to having a degree in photography you’re also degreed in anthropology. Have those skills helped you in photographing people and developing your photographic style?

NB: What I loved most about studying anthropology in college was learning about different cultures and communities around the world: how they function, their unique characteristics, their food and music. I’ve also always loved photography and I realized that photojournalism, to me, was a perfect marriage of the two fields. I could explore the world around me through my lens. I’ve always been open-minded and curious, and I think this helps me and shapes the way I see the world and compose my images.

ASMP: You are also the founder and executive director of an organization called Ghana on Tap. Please tell us more about this initiative, including when, how and why you started it and a brief summary of accomplishments to date.

NB: After a brief internship post college, I was looking for an opportunity to work with kids and continue finding ways to incorporate photography in my life. This interest led me to volunteering in rural Ghana and living at a school where I was teaching photography. By the end of my two months stay there, I was so profoundly moved by the people and the culture and wanted to give back to the school that had taken me in as one of their own. I asked if there was something I could provide for them, and their answer was a well. Upon returning to the States I hosted a variety of events, from bar nights to exhibitions, raising money and selling my photographs so that I could give back to my school. It took two years, and more than $10,000, but we were able to drill and install a high quality well and pump. I recently visited the school and the water was flowing gorgeously, like the day it was installed.

ASMP: You’ve won several awards for this work, the most recent being a U.S. Winner of the Magenta Foundation’s Emerging Photographer award for 2013. How has this award affected your career?

NB: This award has affected my career by sharing the work on a wider scale, to a new community of people outside my circle. Lens Culture also recently selected me as a Top Five Emerging Talent. I also recently learned that I’ll be attending the 2014 Eddie Adams Workshop.

ASMP: Can you share any advice on how to go about researching and applying for awards?

NB: I just try to keep my ears and eyes open as competitions come up each year. Facebook has always helped me know about photo competitions, and my wide network of photography-related friends post when they hear about them. Sometimes I look at the work of photographers I admire and learn about the awards they’ve won. Of course, there are awards out there that I hope to win or get close to one day, but I’m in it for the love of the image and the love of storytelling. I will feel humbled and grateful if I am one day a recipient of other awards, but for now, I’m happy to be surviving as a working photographer!

ASMP: What is the most essential thing you’ve learned from undertaking this project that you’ll apply to your future career as an image-maker?

NB: Its important to always be shooting. I tried to always be shooting other things while I was working on my project, because I think its important to keep building the muscles that you need as a photographer. I like to look at the work of others to draw inspiration and perspective. I like to toy around with different compositions that maybe I don’t normally look for, to see what turns out. I think it’s important to always be curious and keep exploring.

ASMP: Which photographers, filmmakers or artists inspire and influence your work and style?

NB: There are many photographers and artists whose work inspires me. I connect a lot to Maggie Steber and her project “Madje Has Dementia” about her late mother. Her images are beautiful and intimate and, at the same time, honest and powerful. You can feel the love that she has for her mother through her images. I also love the work of Stephanie Sinclair. She’s become a mentor of mine and I’ve always been in awe of her work, and her commitment for advocacy. Her work is powerful and meaningful, shedding light on some of the world’s most devastating issues. You can feel that her subjects are comfortable around her and trust her. I’ve also recently been told that some of my images resemble stills from a Wes Anderson film. Maybe his sense of framing has influenced how I see, at least in some of my work. I do love his films!

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

NB: Never say no, starting out. When I got the opportunity to photograph my first assignment for Newsday I cancelled everything else I had going on that weekend and took the job. I didn’t have a car but I said I did, so I found a way to get a car and did the assignment. After that, I said yes to every assignment they contacted me about for more than a year. There is a line of photographers fighting for these kinds of jobs and you have to take advantage of an opportunity if it comes your way.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

NB: Not limiting myself to one kind of photography. My passion is photojournalism and documentary photography, but when a wedding came my way I decided to shoot it. I shot it like a photojournalist, told their story my own way, and they loved the images. Don’t let pride get in the way of shooting. If you want to succeed in this business, I think it’s important to be open to the different types of job opportunities out there.

ASMP: What’s the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

NB: You are a one-woman or one-man show. You are your own salesperson, your own public relations, your own boss and your own everything really. It’s important to be ready to hustle and fight for the jobs that are out there. Whether the assignment is documenting a small café or photographing the mayor, shoot it like your life depends on it. If the scene is too crowded and you can’t see the subject, find a way to make an interesting image. If the crime already happened and all that’s left is the police tape, make something amazing with that scene. Someone once told me that when shooting news you have to “shoot the shit out of it, because in a moment it’ll be gone” and to this day I always remember that advice.

ASMP: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

NB: I’m just hoping to dig my teeth into another long-term project that I can care enough about, as much as I care about this project on my parents. I’m in a good place right now with work and I’ve been keeping busy with a variety of assignments and jobs, so I can’t complain. I’m doing what I love and I feel very lucky.

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