I expect you not to like the following post. It’s summer, a vacation time, and probably you don’t want to read the hard topics.
Sometimes a journalist has to work on the story that is rather emotionally hard for him/her personally to digest. For instance, for many Georgian journalists such a topic was a Georgian-Russian conflict in 2008 (for professional journalists many of them took it too personally). For me it’s cancer.
Recently I got assigned to work on the Georgian National Cancer Center in Tbilisi. Many, who have seen this building, would say that it’s a picture of something depressing and dismal, even if you’re not cancerophobic.
To be honest, I wasn’t excited too much about working in this building for several days. My head was full of something like “if you think about the cancer all the time it starts to develop.” I thought I’d begin thinking about the cancer all the time as soon as I’m in the building. I am cancerophic, at some degree.
It did not turn out to be otherwise when I went there. The building was depressing. It was shabby. It was full of people on the threshold of death. But at the same time I did not get depressed. Though the life seemed to be peculiarly thin there, people were living there. And, which is more important, many of them were fighting for life. Many people I’ve seen were going to die in the next few day (some of them knew it, some of them didn’t), but nevertheless virtually none of them asked me to leave the room to leave them alone. They talked to me, didn’t mind to be photographed. Sometimes they smiled.
I don’t have illusion that those people were happy at that moment. They knew about their problems. But at the same time it seemed they were tired of thinking only about their health issues. They wanted something more. And unnoticeably for me, I got a feeling that I rid myself of the fear of cancer. At least at some level.
The issue of ethics was raised when I started publishing the images. The problem was that relatives of some of the patient (who might have already died by the time of publication) were possibly going to be upset when they saw those pictures published. That’s true, in some cases such images should not be published, at least immediately, since the feeling of relatives has to be taken into account, even if they allowed you to take photos of the person. But in a long run the documentary photography has to be the priority. When the photograph is taken, it’s no more only the picture of the certain person, but also of the situation, the environment and the issue.
Unless I don’t harm the person, I have an unwritten license of taking photos, because I am a photographer. And by publishing those images I tell the story. Grief is something to be taken into account, but telling the story of it is not the harm. I’m telling the story through somebody’s sickness, through the grief of the people around him or her, through my own cancerophobia. I’m a visual story teller, and this is my license to get the material for a story. Criticism like “you make money on somebody’s tragedy” is a subject of the further discussion, but not of this post. The subject of this post is the Cancer Center.
So, yes, the building is old and needs reconstruction. Wards are not too clean and corridor walls are frequently covered by cracks. In the buildings there are well-renovated private sections though, where they have cleaner wards and nicer service. But at the same time the private and state financed sectors share the same personnel. And most patients praised doctors and nurses. That somewhat mitigates the differences in conditions. It seems that the medical staff remained true professionals despite the frequent salary delays (in June they told me they haven’t been paid since January). I can expect that such a humane approach towards patients from the medical staff’s side can somewhat compensate the bad conditions inside the wards.
OK, forgive me the pathos of this post. I don’t want you to think that I’m too selfish writing about those people and saying that I got rid of cancerophobia, although, yes, I’m egoistic (which is different), in a sense that I try to tell the story, no matter how emotional the subject is. I also don’t want to scare you off the Cancer Center – it’s really not that bad conditions in there, good specialists are the best side of it and I myself is going to get analyzed there some time in near future. And least of all I meant to ruin your summer day by posting this long post. The next one will be funny, I promise.
The National Cancer Center. Georgia, 2010
Read the full story on the National Cancer Center in Tbilisi.