Photographer Angelo Merendino chronicled his young wife's breast cancer journey in a series of photographs which are currently on exhibit in a wonderful space, a former church, on the east side of Cleveland.
I first read about this exhibit when controversy erupted some weeks ago about its placement at The Gathering Place, an organization and facility which offers all kinds of education and support for cancer patients and their loved ones. Many of The Gathering Place's clients and friends protested its showing an exhibit in which the stark realities of day-to-day life with cancer are depicted. They found it depressing and disheartening to walk into a place of support and hope only to be greeted by these graphic reminders of serious illness and death. And yes, Jen Merendino did die.
Angelo has written about The Gathering Place's decision to close the exhibit, and several other related articles and posts appear on his Facebook page. That's not my issue: I have long understood that my desire to know about and to see birth and death up close are not universally appreciated. Those great transitions of human life have a claim on my curiosity and imagination that is shared by few people, and my wonder at photography and what it conveys seems to be unlimited. I never found childbirth photos "gross," and I do not find pictures of illness to be depressing or horrifying.
What I saw in this exhibit was the power of love and the strength of human courage.
And sometimes, the lack of the latter ~ but then, that is part of the human experience as well. There is a moving series of photographs entitled "Reactions" that should give us all pause. They were taken in public places, out on the street. Jen moves through the scenes, a frail and bald woman grasping a walker, while the faces of those she passes are recorded by the camera. Curiosity, surprise, distaste, rejection. I remarked to the exhibitor that in not one of those photographs do we see a stranger reacting with a friendly, welcoming face.
In my favorite photo, Jen is seated, I believe in a window, wearing a dress and painting her toenails. Her hair is gone, her body is thin, and a cane rests nearby. You cannot miss understanding that this is a woman in great crisis exerting the power of color and beauty over pain and sadness.
The woman who owns the gallery ~ yes! an artist purchased this abandoned sacred building so that she could house art exhibits ~ and I talked for a long time. She lost her first husband to suicide several years ago, and so we were able to talk candidly about how losses of such magnitude change who we are and how we respond to life, and to death.
I have often mentioned my frustration with the remark "I can't imagine" that comes my way so often. I believe now that in saying those words people are simultaneously expressing sympathy and erecting a wall of protection around themselves. We all do care for and love each other, but we don't want to imagine, much less know, the day to day trauma of the lives of others.
For those who are brave enough to learn this particular walk, these images are a treasure.