Altered views of cancer

Friday, January 21, 2005

Photographer Joe Craig and assistant Eric White are discovering the healing power of photography.

Right now, two panels of their photos, 154 shots in all, are hanging in the David C. Pratt Cancer Center at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis. The photographs are part of the "Healing Through the Arts" exhibit at the cancer center, and they capture candid moments in the life of cancer's survivors and victims.

"It's a way of documenting their life," said Craig, who lives in Dexter, Mo., and has a studio in Cape Girardeau. "People told us it was an important part of the process of hope. It's more about the experience of getting together with family and friends than anything else."

Not only do the photos document life, but the photographers say they actually help with the healing process.

"We want to give them some assurance," White said. "They're ill, but they still have family and friends and they're still connected to the universe."

Two panels tell the story of 21 different patients, all at some stage in a struggle for life itself. Some are beating the cancer, others are trying to bring closure before they leave those they love behind.

The photographers had the idea to create the displays after performing some photo shoots for cancer survivors in Springfield, Mo. When a friend who works at the St. Louis hospital told them about the healing arts exhibit, they decided they might be able to do something to help.

Support groups at the hospital provided the subjects for the photos, which include people of all ages, from children to the elderly, all of whom were suffering from cancer.

"They may not have hair and they may be sick but they're still living life," White said. "And they hope they can help someone else."

In one series of photos, a mother embraces her children. It was one of her last acts in life, and she wanted the photos to bring some sort of closure to her family.

"That lady didn't really have hope," White recalled. "She did it just to say goodbye. Unfortunately, we lost her."

Another shows a middle-aged man, bald from his treatment, holding his newborn grandchild.

The photos are meant to capture the genuine moments, said Craig, not some artificial pose, such as the woman with her sister who can be seen laughing as she pulls off her head covering to reveal her sparse hair.

Power of intuition

This isn't the first time Craig has used his art for this purpose. While lecturing in Thailand in the mid-'90s, Craig said he learned the power of "intuition" in his craft, taking photos of Thais who couldn't speak English.

The camera transcended language barriers, and he thought he could use this to help people deal with loss and struggle.

"We've tried to help people who've lost children, lovers," Craig said. "Any age, even the young, have grave losses in their lives. We want to find the deeper meaning and go beyond the traditional."

Craig said he's received letters from across the country, and even from Canada, giving admiration for what he's doing with his art.

But to Craig, who with the help of some sponsorship donates the photos and time to the families for free, it's just about helping people and giving back something.

"It's our spiritual donation to society," he said. "We didn't find it, it found us."

Eventually the goal is to help people learn how to do this on their own, documenting life, the good days and the bad. Craig hopes to do that through the creation of a DVD telling people how to catch their own lives through photos.

"Our legacy lies in the images we leave behind," he said.

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