A husband and wife, who faced the unwelcome call of cancer, put together a powerful photo series titled “The Battle We Didn’t Choose.” Their goal, in documenting Jen Merendino’s struggle with cancer, was to educate people through visually showing them what enduring cancer is really like, the challenges and pain of the disease, the importance of family and friends and appreciating each and every day like it’s your last. We recently interviewed Angelo Merendino to discuss his highly emotional series.
How did you first get started in photography?
I was living in Nashville, Tennessee–this would have been the year 2000. I was dating this girl who was a painter; she had an old Canon AE-1 program, a 35 mm camera. One day we were out on the Cumberland River and she said, “Why don’t you try and make a photograph?” I didn’t know what I was doing, she set the exposure, I looked through and tried to focus and hit the shutter. I’ll never forget that sound, it still echoes in my head. Right when I made that photograph I knew I was hooked.
What type of photography do you specialize in mostly?
I prefer to photograph people. I think mostly in an observing way, documentary or journalistic, but I’m also getting much more interested in portraits. I think portraits tell a story. I guess I’m trying to make photographs that really capture a person or a moment.
When you shot the photo chronicling your wife’s struggle with cancer, why did you decide to shoot in black and white?
When I first really started shooting I dove into black and white. My first favorite photographers were like Robert Capa and Robert Frank–it was that kind of gritty black and white style. When I started making these photographs of Jennifer, I was making photographs to help tell our story to our family and friends, I wasn’t thinking about making a photo documentary. So it wasn’t as if it was this long thought out decision. It was just that I personally favor black and white, I was taking care of Jennifer–that was always number one–and the photographs were just kind of happening, so I decided to go with what was comfortable.
Looking back, I think black and white offers a different kind of starkness. Even as I’ve gone back to try to experiment and rework images and color, black and white gives it a different kind of connection. Color was a distraction from the actual feeling of the photographs.
After shooting for a few months, when I was looking back at earlier photographs, I thought that I was using my brain too much. I decided that the best way would be to always have my camera ready and close by, and when something hit my gut I would just make a photograph. Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t sitting down and saying, ‘I need an establishing shot or I need this shot.’ Really the photographs were kind of an escape for me. It was how I was dealing with what we were going through–which is strange because it was just further looking at what we were going through. I tried not to think. I tried to shoot when I felt something because I wanted to trust myself. A lot of these photographs were made in our apartment or in the hospital, so I was often shooting in ISO 3200 and made most of these photographs with a Nikon D7000. Often times I would have to adapt to my surroundings. It wasn’t necessarily favorable lighting conditions. The less I thought about those things, the more present I was in the moment.
When and how did you first meet your wife Jen?
In 2005. Jennifer and I were both living in Cleveland. Jen was managing a bar and restaurant in the neighborhood that I had lived in. […] She was so beautiful. I knew the minute I saw her that she was the one. […] We were married September 1, 2007, in Central Park. It was wonderful. […] We were married in this area called the 100th Street Pool–it’s a pond surrounded by all kinds of different trees and plants. From where we were standing and facing each other you couldn’t see any cement: New York City was no more than a baseball throw away, but we were in the park and we could’ve been anywhere at that moment.
When was Jen diagnosed with breast cancer?
Five months after our wedding. February 2008. Her general practitioner felt something two days before and sent Jen to get a mammogram; that day they ran a few extra tests. Jen was nervous because she had never had extra tests done and then when the doctor entered the room she really felt nervous. He said, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s breast cancer.’ That was when it first came up and over the next week or two we went to get second and third opinions and it was confirmed. It was breast cancer. I remember when Jen called me; I was just numb. I’m still pretty numb. You know, who ever wants to hear that news, period? We just got married. We were both just stunned. It was coming: all of a sudden there was this even greater unknown, which was life. We just looked in each other’s eyes and felt like, ‘OK, well we got each other and we’re going to get through it.’ We were very close and really were a part of the communities of each other. From that point on we just leaned on each other and we grew incredibly close in a very short period of time.
Did you get a lot of support from your family and friends?
When Jen was diagnosed everyone was shocked. We realized that our support group was really incredible. People would send cards, flowers and meals when they knew that we had like an eight or ten-hour day of chemotherapy. People helped; they were there and helped us out with the medical costs. It was non-stop all the time. There was never anything normal; every day was really different and mortality was thrown into our faces.
We had a great support group, but we noticed people didn’t always understand or know what to say. After awhile people kind of stopped calling–we knew people have their own lives going on, but it was hard. We tried to keep in contact with people to say, ‘Hey. Just send a text message, just do something.’ It was devastating, but then we couldn’t have made it without that help, that’s the thing. Life was pretty hellish and I don’t know how we could’ve made it through that time without our family and friends. This is part of the reason why I wanted to share our story. Life can be very hard and that’s obvious–just open the newspaper–but people need help all the time and we were the ones who needed help then. Especially with cancer because people are often afraid to talk about it. I get that–it’s scary–but it’s happening and when you’re going through this the last thing you need is to have it swept under the rug.
After Jen’s cancer metastasized in April 2010 people were kind of distant and didn’t understand how serious it was. They would say things like, ‘You guys just have to stay positive. You’re going to beat this again,’ but when cancer metastasizes that’s bad and very scary–it means that until there’s a cure, you’re always going to have cancer. You’re always going to be fighting for your life. There are so many men and women do this and we didn’t understand this before we went through it ourselves. Jennifer had kept a blog about her experience. She wanted people to know that this is how it is, she also wanted to be able to share things that helped her, so that if someone else with breast cancer was looking for information they could find it–it’s hard to find information on breast cancer that isn’t so factual. Things where actual people were saying, ‘I had this side effect and this helped make it better’ or ‘I need my family and friends.’ That’s what Jen wanted to do.
When our family and friends weren’t responding that’s when I started making these photographs. I was hoping that they would see and better understand. […] I can’t remember the exact saying, but Eddie Adams, who shot a lot of war photography early on, said something along the lines of, ‘The most dangerous weapon isn’t a gun, it’s a camera.’ A camera is powerful. I had no idea or intention of all of this being what it is now, so it’s still quite humbling.
What specific moments were you trying to capture in these photos?
I really didn’t think too much, so it was just kind of whatever hit me at that moment. I really wanted people to see the love and the life. I want them to see Jennifer embrace life in how she found good in something that wasn’t good. I also want them to see that this is real. Some of the photographs show pain because someone with cancer can be in pain. I understand that these photographs can upset people, but they’re real photographs and it’s not something that was staged. If we don’t share what we experience and learn then how can we as humans keep learning and growing?
How does it feel incorporating such a personal experience in your work and sharing that with all of society?
It has been a learning experience. Early on, before Jen passed, right after I posted the photographs we were getting some emails. A few of them came in from different women with cancer with messages saying, ‘I have breast cancer and my treatment’s been hell and I was ready to give up until I saw these photographs of Jen and now I’m not going to quit.’ That was huge. We got messages from support groups and they were a huge part of how Jen got through a lot of things because it was other women who experienced exactly what she did and they knew something that I didn’t know. On the other side, it made Jen happy when she could help somebody going through something she had already been through. To receive that message really meant a lot. A woman scheduled a mammogram because of Jen, and we felt that this was important.
I believe it’s important for people to see things even if they’re difficult to see, but it’s challenging because sometimes people are not really into the photographs and they let me know. I’ve received some rough messages the last year and a half. […] People have sent messages and made comments suggesting that instead of making photographs I should have been taking care of Jennifer. One writer wrote, ‘When I saw the photo of Jen ready to have her head shaved, I felt like telling her husband to put down his camera and just hold her.’ I have been told that these photographs are morbid and not something that should be shared with the public. I’ve even been accused of being opportunistic, lacking morals and of making money off of my “dead wife.” […] I do my best to not let those messages do too much damage, but it’s painful. […] What I consistently come back to is that the people who made these comments have no idea how I took care of Jennifer. Not one of them has even met Jen or me. They were not there when I held Jennifer, when I pushed her in her wheelchair so we could get to treatments, how I took care of her medications and everything else going on in our life so that Jen could focus on her health. They neither slept on two chairs pushed together in Jen’s hospital room like I did, nor did they stop everything else in their life so they could be with the woman they hoped to grow old with as cancer slowly took her away. […] I understand that people can lash out but I would hope that people would stop for a minute and maybe do a little more research before attacking because it could be rough. I would say to anyone who has a body of work that is of a sensitive issue, once you put it out there, you’re putting it out there for anyone who wants to take a swing at it. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but people can be quite aggressive and hurtful. But I believe in this. I’ve received messages from people who have been moved and it helped. It has helped way more people than the negative messages, so I just try to remember that. I remember what Jen and I wanted and how we lived our life.
What ultimately do you want people to take away from these photos?
I hope people will stop for a minute and think. I hope people would think about if there’s somebody they know who is facing any kind of challenge, people will imagine what walking in someone else’s shoes is like and how important something as simple as a text message of ‘I love you’ can be for someone who is going through something challenging. I hope people will hug their wife or husband or son or friend and say, ‘I love you’ more often. My 40th birthday is coming up–I think that’s not even something to take for granted that I’ll turn 40. I hope people will see the beauty in life, and even though life is at times challenging and not good always, there are good parts–embrace those, even if it’s just a little bit of sun hitting some flower petals. Find that in your day or be open to it and try to give it to others. I hope people will see love in life.