When Jock Bradley’s sister died from ovarian cancer last year, his grief and experience dealing with her illness led to the birth of a new art project. Bradley, a professional photographer, began to work on Portraits of Cancer, a photo series that tells the stories of cancer patients and their families. Now a website and budding outreach organization, Portraits of Cancer documents the realities of life for people struggling with this often fatal disease.
Though Bradley is better known in the Pacific Northwest as an adventure and lifestyle photographer, he’s shifted his focus to take these portraits. It began as a personal project, documenting the people he met while caring for his sister in New Mexico. As he got to know these patients and their stories, he started taking photographs.
“After talking with each person, that’s when I’d bring the camera in and take a few pictures,” says Bradley. “As I started hearing more and more people’s stories, I got more artistically serious. I began collecting stories and the idea just came to me that I needed to do something with it. So Portraits of Cancer was born.”
Now back in Oregon, Bradley is continuing the work. He connects with people who are living with cancer, either as caretakers or patients, and interviews and photographs them to tell their stories. The level of care, concern and empathy needed to do this work is something Bradley doesn’t think he had before experiencing his own loss.
“Up until the final five weeks of being with my sister, I don’t think I could have sat in a room with a cancer patient or a family member who had lost someone to cancer and asked the same questions I’m asking now,” he says. “I don’t think I could have done it; I think I would have felt like I was intruding. Going through the process with my sister has allowed me a whole lot more understanding, a whole lot more compassion.”
Bradley finds most of his subjects through word of mouth, and they vary in age, life experience and diagnosis. There’s Nathan, an athletic 22-year-old recovering from a brain tumor. Sue, a 62-year-old jewelry maker, has breast cancer. And William, a 53-year old father and grandfather, died last year from adenocarcinoma. It’s important to Bradley to show the realities of cancer, both good and bad, and the ways the disease affects so many of us.
“These people aren’t celebrities — they’ll never be famous,” he says. “They’re like the rest of us. Their stories need to be told. Every single person that I’ve interviewed has shown courage that’s beyond compare.”
Belle Piazza is one of those courageous people. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer seven years ago, she met up with Bradley recently to have her portrait taken.
“He seems very genuine and sincere,” says Piazza of her experience. “I felt very honored. I felt very honored to have that opportunity.”
Part of the reason Piazza enjoyed working with Bradley for Portraits of Cancer is that she felt he understood her struggle, and that his empathy was genuine. It’s important to Piazza to raise awareness in a way that’s honest about cancer and the people who have it.
“It’s almost become a popular thing to talk about pink ribbons and fighting the fight, and conquering cancer, but the reality is lots of us are not going to win this battle,” she says. “Hundreds of thousands of people are dying from this disease. And, you know, they don’t get a pink ribbon. They don’t win their battles. And we need to talk about that and we need to recognize and acknowledge it,” Piazza says.
“Jock understands that. He lost his sister to cancer; he understands that not everyone wins this battle, so I knew that this photo shoot was not going to be just a marketing campaign … I knew that he understood the big picture of what happens with cancer. Cancer’s not pretty,” she adds.
It’s Bradley’s hope that Portraits of Cancer, which launched online earlier this month, will reach a wide audience, especially since cancer touches so many lives in so many ways. By showing many different experiences with cancer, he aims to normalize the process of dealing with a disease that can be very frightening at times.
“I’m hoping to take away perhaps a little bit of the fear,” he says. “Speaking from my own experience, when my sister was diagnosed I immediately thought it was a death sentence. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to die.”
In addition to reaching those diagnosed with cancer, Bradley hopes to raise money for some organizations working to cure it. Instead of selling his photographs, he asks that interested parties make a donation to one of the organizations listed on the Portraits of Cancer website in exchange for a print.
Above all, Bradley wants those struggling with cancer to feel less alone, and to have hope. It’s for this reason that he plans to continue working on Portraits of Cancer for years to come.
“I want to photograph the people after they’ve celebrated the first year being clean of cancer, and then I want to come back and photograph them five years later,” he says. “I think it will be pretty cool to get the five-year folks and put their pictures back into the website, and to celebrate.”
To learn more about Jock Bradley and Portraits of Cancer, tune in to Oregon Art Beat on February 12 at 8:00 p.m. on OPB TV.
Editor’s Note - February 11, 2015: A previous version of this article stated Jock Bradley was based in Portland. In fact, Jock Bradley lives in Hood River and works around the state of Oregon.