By now, you’ve all seen the stories: “A Husband Took These Photos Of His Wife And Captured Love And Loss Beautifully,” “The Battle Against Cancer, Fought With Love,” “A Man Chronicles His Wife’s Battle with Cancer in Heartbreaking Photographs,” “This Guy’s Wife Got Cancer, So He Did Something Unforgettable. The Last 3 Photos Destroyed Me.” It’s been a while since Resource last talked to photographer Angelo Merendino, and since then his documentary photo series, The Battle We Didn’t Choose, has gone viral, spreading the story of Merendino and his wife Jennifer’s battle with breast cancer to every corner of the globe. Resource caught up with the photographer to talk about the viral effect, Jen’s legacy and picking up the camera again.
It’s been almost two months since the last time we talked. How have you been?
It’s been really hectic the last few weeks. It’s been great so I’ve just been trying to keep up with things, and I’m happy that people are still interested in our story. I’ll tell you what: it is pretty mind-blowing hearing from people who say things like, “This person I went to college with, who lives on the other side of the world and had no idea we knew each other, posted it on my wall.” I’ve just been blown away by the whole thing. So yeah, it’s been a good few weeks (laughs).
Have you been shooting much lately? The last time we talked, you said you had to figure out who you were as a person after losing Jennifer and as a widower before you could figure out who you were now as a photographer.
Actually I have been a lot more. I’ve been taking an editorial portrait class, and that’s been really kicking my butt. It’s a different way of thinking than I’m used to shooting, especially with the way you look at light. So I’m really learning a lot, and it’s fun to make new photographs and see where I’m at shooting-wise after going through all these photographs of Jennifer and this whole experience. Life is different. So it’s been nice, and I’ve got some ideas for other projects I’d like to pursue, which is good.
I feel like I’m starting to get a little more comfortable in my own skin, and I think I’m starting to see things differently—seeing light in a different way, and starting to be more comfortable with seeing something and thinking, “Well I like that, and I think that’s worth taking a photograph.” Trusting my gut in a different way. It’s a different outlook, and I think taking this step with these photographs has allowed me to think about other parts of my life. Even though it’s really busy with this craziness that’s been happening, I still have a lot more time to pick up a book or look at a movie, and I think that that’s really starting to come through with the camera. I have an urge to make photographs, and it’s still scary, but now I feel like I’m a little more ready to do that.
So why do you think this story starting getting so much attention and going viral the way it has recently?
I still don’t exactly know. I know it got on Imgur, so that really took off a lot, and then it was on Viral Nova. Then Upworthy picked it up and the Today Show ran it on their website. So a lot of sites that get a lot of traffic have picked it up.
But as far as people sharing it, I still wonder what it is that people connect to in these photographs, and I know that a lot of people in the comments mention that it’s sort of like a reminder about life and their own relationships. I think there’s a human side of this in that it isn’t just a lot of photographs: there’s also a love story. Like I said last time we talked, I think these photographs are really more about love and life than they are about death and loss. So people connect to that, I think. It’s pretty fascinating to me. I’d be curious to know why people decided to share this or post it.
How does it make you feel to know that all of these people around the world, most of them complete strangers, now know Jen’s name and know your story?
Well, it makes me happy that something good is happening, that people are moved in a good way. I get emails from more and more women who are getting mammograms because of Jen, and women with cancer who are inspired and people who have lost a loved one saying that these photographs helped them in some way. So I’m thankful that Jen’s legacy is having a positive impact on the world and that something good is growing out of this. It makes me happy; it helps me to accept what happened, because, again, something good is happening, and that’s how Jennifer lived her life—she really made the most of whatever life threw at her. I’m humbled, and I’m honored that people are moved by our story and that it’s causing something good in their own lives. I can’t imagine anything better than doing something that is making a positive difference in the world, and that’s not something I dreamed I would ever do. I never had any idea that something like this would happen. In the big picture, when you think about somebody’s life, one day I’ll be off of this planet, and maybe this is something good I did that will leave a lasting impact.
What do you think Jen would think of the fact that this story has gone viral and these photos are being shared all over the world, and that something the two of you created together is having such a big impact and, as you said, may last longer either of you?
I can see the face she would make (laughs). She would just be blown away and humbled by the whole experience. You know, I’ve received a few emails where people don’t quite agree with what I’m doing, and I often wonder, “What would Jen feel about this?” And I know she’d be proud and supportive. I think she would be very happy.
Do you still get emails with negative feedback (I know when you first started, some people were accusing you of focusing too much on the camera and not taking care of Jen the way you should have)? Or has most of the feedback been positive?
I do get them every now and then, but it’s such a tiny percent compared to the good, positive ones. And I just remember that. I think about how many times I get an email from somebody that makes me feel good and shows me how much our story is helping, and it’s beyond ninety-nine to one. So I try to keep my perspective. It still stings; anytime somebody says something aggressive and hurtful, that hits. But I think of the good things that are happening and what my intentions are, and that’s life: Anytime you put something like this out there, you’re opening yourself up to people to take a swing at you. So I’ve accepted that that’s just part of it. These photographs, they hit nerves with people. They’re emotional photographs. So I guess I expect that, in some way. You’re not going to please everyone, but I know what my intentions are and why I’m doing this, and that’s what keeps me going.
You recently closed your show at the Cleveland Print Room, Observing and Reacting. What was that experience like?
It went really well. It’s always nice to see prints instead of seeing things on a screen. The prints were big—they were 28X40—so it was nice to see them up on a wall, and I got some nice feedback on the show. And now they’re occupying a large space in my apartment. I have to find another place to hang them.
Are there any other projects you’re working on right now, aside from the editorial portraiture class?
Well, since I’ve gotten back, I have ten older brothers and sisters and I’ve been really re-establishing those relationships with all of them and slowly working the camera in. I’d like to make portraits of everyone, with the same type of lighting set-up, because I’ve noticed there are so many similarities between the eleven of us, and yet we’re all unique and individual, and I’d love to explore that with the camera and see how a photograph can translate that. And it’s also been a great way to reconnect with my brothers and sisters, because it’s another reason to go see them and to listen to them and to get to know them. So that’s one of my newer projects.
But I’ve also been just working on my own portfolio of portraits, photographing a good friend who owns a local tattoo shop, another friend who owns a bike shop. And really using my camera to develop relationships with people: that’s been the biggest thing I’ve been doing. I do this for work, but it’s nice to have this personal extension. And no matter where these photographs of my family go, they’re going to be something that, my family and I, we have, for ourselves. It’s like when I was making these photographs of Jennifer; there was no intention of anything happening, and I just photographed from my feelings. And I think that’s one reason people connect with them. With these photographs I’m making, it’s less for the end result and more for that moment of being with people and honoring and respecting that moment I have with friends. And also I think these photographs force me to look inside myself and see who I am, what kind of friend or what kind of family member I am. So the camera continues to sort of turn in on myself and on my thoughts.
Do you think the whole experience with Jen and shooting those photographs has changed the way you look at or approach photography in general now?
Totally. It does, because I think it’s pushed me to observe more and to listen and to think of all the things I can learn if I just sit back. It’s pushed me to pay more attention to detail and my surroundings, because when I was photographing Jennifer, I wasn’t thinking much about the photographs—it was just whatever my gut felt. I was very in tune to everything that Jennifer needed and everything that she was feeling, so I think being that in tune to my environment, any time that something subtle would happen, I had my camera ready. So I’m trying to turn that into the way I shoot everything, just paying attention and listening and observing, the little things. And also, these photographs have really pushed me to believe in myself, in that the photographs that I make, I’m making them for a reason, and that it’s a valid reason and an important reason, and it’s ok. I guess trusting that I’m making good photographs, as opposed to looking for someone else’s approval, which is kind of where I’m at in life. Finding myself again and trusting myself. The photographs of Jennifer have really taught me to listen, and to follow my heart.
For more of Angelo Merendino’s work, check out his website: http://angelomerendino.com/.