When the Canadian photographer and visual artist Stephen L. Starkman was diagnosed with lung cancer, his world instantly changed. It took him to the emergency room of a Toronto hospital in 2021, still during the pandemic, acute pain on the left side of the body. A bronchoscopy and biopsy revealed it to be small cell lung cancer, which is less common and grows and metastasizes more quickly to other organs.
“A few weeks after completing a cycle of chemotherapy, a routine examination revealed that the cancer had spread to my brain”, he writes in the pages of the photobook launched in late 2022 The Proximity of Mortality: A Visual Artist’s Journey through Cancer. “I understand, therefore, that it is terminal.”
“This is a work about the end of my life. This is expected within the next few weeks or months.”
The diagnosis came as no shock to Starkman. “My parents died of cancer,” he says. His mother died at the age of 39 and his father 16 years later. “I would be lying if I said I was shocked, but I was surprised. And angry.” What he refers to as one of the most difficult experiences of his life followed: “Telling my wife and family.”
His “inevitable denial reaction” turned out to be “interesting”, he describes in an interview he gave to the magazine Lenscratch, which he sent to P3 as an alternative to a direct interview. “I felt that people were going to disappear from my life, although I knew, deep down, that the opposite would happen.”
Initially, Stephen L. Starkman he was very discreet about sharing his diagnosis. “It was very difficult to tell people.” A greater openness came with the decision to develop a photographic work that would document his life as a terminal cancer patient. “I wanted to create something that reflected my emotions and helped other people”, he summarizes.
“Sleepless nights and restless days” are at the basis of the many images he created that describe, objectively or subjectively, the periods of hospitalization and the intricate range of emotions that erupted and that still loom over. “There are many feelings that are complex and difficult to live with,” she explains. “I feel guilty for leaving the people I love. I have a strange feeling that when I die I will miss you, not the other way around. Is weird.”
Many of the photographs that make up the book were taken during a period of convalescence from a stronger and more invasive chemotherapy session. “Mental confusion, disturbances in vision and taste” are translated in some of the images through metaphors. She recovered “enough” to be able to finish the book, she recalls.
“It is incredibly surreal to try to understand and face your own mortality”, he told Jacque Rupp, in September 2022, for the Lenscratch. “It’s all about the unknown. About fear. About an inevitable closeness. It shakes me to my core.” He was “lucky”, he says, not to have suffered as much as he had hoped from the chemotherapy treatments. “I was afraid of losing my hair, my strength, of feeling sick. But it wasn’t like that most days.” But he is realistic and knows that his prognosis has not changed. “It’s very difficult and challenging, but I’ve learned to live with it, to ‘compartmentalize’ it.”
He developed mechanisms, over time and with the help of his wife, Debi, to be able to live with the proximity of death. The photographer makes an effort to “lock away what is breathtaking and live in the present”, he says in the pages of the photobook that he published independently. “I try to live as intensely as possible every minute, every hour, every day, every day. However, as always, lurking in a corner is fear and the clock is ticking. Still, I still want to have hope.”
Faced with the imminence of death, Starkman feels fear. Fear of “the horror, the nightmare, the suffering and the unknown”, he tells the Lenscratch. “I saw my parents endure enormous pain, that’s my point of reference. And that scares me a lot.” He feels, in advance, an enormous sadness for those who will live, up close, the experience of his death.
Starkman is not a religious person, and admits that this is something that influences the way he views mortality. “I think that spirituality, for me, is present in my sense of humanity towards the people around me”, reflects. “It is difficult for me to trust spirituality. I think science and spirituality are incompatible. Science is limited, based on the scientific method. Spirituality is based on belief, hope, and this is something that has little consistency for me. Does not work.”
Thus, it prefers to focus on the present. He is part of a support group for people with terminal illness and has the help of a social worker. “Ait helps me to deal with my fears and make some preparations that have to do with my finances and some options. I’ve tried meditation and breathing exercises, and I find these techniques help me calm down.”
The most important thing for you right now is your quality of life. Debi, her counselor and caregiver, is an essential pillar at this stage, she stresses. “She keeps me from breaking down, even though I know that it all drains her life, that she has to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to care for someone who is terminally ill.”
The creation of the project and the photobook are also an important part. “It facilitated the process of sharing my situation with others, it gave me a platform to have meaningful conversations with the people who matter in my life, and ironically, it became a tool for them to be able to help me.” In addition to Starkman’s testimony, the book includes those of other cancer patients who share their experiences, as well as that of an oncologist and some poems by author and cancer survivor Joanne Boyce.
Above all, the Canadian wants his book to become an important document for those facing long-term illness. “I want people to get what they need personally by spending time leafing through the book, even if it’s a different experience for everyone. If the book becomes a starting point for thoughts, emotions, discussion and reflection among those facing a life-threatening illness for them, their families and caregivers, then it will have been a success.”