For many photographers, their practice is personal. For documentarian Karlina Mitchell more so than most as she uses a camera to chronicle, and cope with, her husband’s experience of cancer. She spoke to SUNSTUDIOS about the dual roles of wife and photographer during one of the hardest challenges a person can face – and the importance of openness to promote understanding.
Tell us a little about yourself, the focus of your work, your study or career to date?
I’ve been taking photos for about three years and my photography is primarily documentary in nature. I’m just about to finish my sociology degree which plays a large factor in the types of stories I like to document. I’m working on stories that explore life in South West and Western Sydney, areas I spent a lot of my youth in.
Was there a moment when you realised you wanted to photograph your husband during his experience with cancer? Had you attempted this type of photography before?
There was a moment, but there was a progression to that moment. Lee was diagnosed in 2017 and fell into a coma for six days after surgery. I started to compulsively take photos of my surroundings, which was the hospital environment I was spending so much time in.
I found I couldn’t relate to anyone and rather than let my thoughts spiral toward a negative space, composing simple photographs in the hospital helped my stay calm and centre myself in that moment and not beyond.
The potential future of Lee not waking up was too hard to focus on so taking photos really helped me focus on now and nothing beyond that. Then Lee woke up and I found myself taking photos to try and suspend time, slow it down and imprint these memories in my own mind.
So just before Lee was going into surgery again I asked him if he’d be ok with me documenting everything that was happening, he agreed and I’ve been doing it ever since. I had never explored anything this personal before.
What was his reaction to your photography at the time and in retrospect now looking back at the images?
Lee was really open to me telling his and our family story. Lee saw this as a way of confronting the shame society can have about illness – the idea that it should be hidden away and dealt with privately. I feel really lucky that he was so receptive to me taking photos through all of this, he said he knew my photography helped me through this experience too.
Were their challenges for you in shifting the role from wife to photographer? Are these distinct roles or can they be combined?
I still struggle with this. For me the roles of wife and photographer are intertwined.
There were times I couldn’t take a photo, times it didn’t feel right to take a photo and it felt like I was distancing myself by taking a photo.
I still think about that when I look at some of the images but I felt compelled to and I really did use photography as a coping mechanism. Of course there were moments where the photographer was put aside and I didn’t document or feel like taking a photo but my camera was always there.
You’ve said you are hoping to change the dialogue we have about our lives and our aversion to discussions about hardship. What from your experience is to be gained through open discussions about hardship?
I’ve always been closed and yet when Lee was first diagnosed I searched the internet for a story that reflected what we were going through as a family. It was comforting to read that our experience was not just our own but so many people were going through a similar thing.
It’s this connection that is gained. People have shared such incredible stories with me and the reality is everyone has their hardship. The gain is understanding each other’s humanity and vulnerability. This openness isn’t for everyone and I get that but for those that want to it should be encouraged it can be cathartic and who knows there may be someone that gets comfort from knowing they are not in this alone.
Have there been lasting differences in your family as a result of going through this experience?
Absolutely, there are such highs and lows. We are still going through this - Lee is still going through treatment. Facing the mortality of a loved one makes every moment important. Our children are so resilient and have been through more than I had at their age, they amaze me. We feel so lucky in so many ways, we have an amazing family and support system.
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