"I think these photos are about love, not loss"

Jane Zhang et Antoine Boyet
12 Avril 2013

Angelo Merendino shares, through photography, the emotional battle against cancer that his wife Jennifer fought, and unfortunately lost to this past December. The photo-documentary can be on his website "The battle we didn't choose: My wife’s fight with breast cancer". Interview with Angelo Merendino.

@ Angelo Merendino
@ Angelo Merendino
Through his photography, Angelo Merendino “humanizes” the cancer experience and gives it a face, while documenting the daily struggles with his wife Jen who battled breast cancer. His heart-wrenching photo series give an intimate lens to the couple’s short and love-filled years together. And through the hardship, comes a strong message of hope and love.

How did you and Jen meet? When did you know that she was “the one”?

We were both living in Cleveland, Ohio. I was going to apply for a job at a local restaurant where Jen was the manager. I went to apply and they only served dinner so there was a sign on the door saying “out getting supplies, back in 15.” So I waited and saw a black VW beetle pull into the parking lot. Jen got out of the car and I knew, the moment I saw her, that this was the woman I wanted to marry. She was just so beautiful and so full of life. I talked with her, and at first she didn’t really feel the same way. She hired me to work, and a month later she got a job at L’Oreal and moved to New York. We kept in touch but I just couldn’t work up the courage to ask her out. I was playing in a band at the time and whenever we would go to New York to play or record I would make time to see Jen. After a few months of frustration, I finally worked up the courage and told her I had a “crush” on her. She felt the same way. We had really grown to like each other. We started dating long-distance for about six months until I moved to New York. Dating long-distance really helped us communicate and listen to each other, which became really important when Jen was diagnosed with cancer.

Could you tell us about the day Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer?

Yes. That’s still a day that I remember very well. She called to tell me that the doctors were pretty certain it was cancer. We were both working and I remember going really numb. I just told her to get a cab home and I’d meet her there. I told my boss, “Hey I think Jen has cancer, I have to go” and he was wonderful about that. I went home and we were just dazed – it was just five months after our wedding. We just held each other, looked into each other’s eyes, and knew that at least we had each other. We said we’d be together forever, and I knew I had to take care of her. Obviously we were scared but there was a lot of comfort in knowing she wasn’t alone.

What made you get behind the camera and document the experience?

Jen was diagnosed in 2008 and we had a great support group. Our family and friends were there for us – they sent meals, cards, they were always checking in. And we needed that. So in 2010 Jen’s cancer metastasized – it came back to her liver and bones - and we were back in treatment again. And this time we noticed that our family and friends weren’t responding the same way. But we really needed them, more than ever at this point. That’s when I started making photographs – if people saw what we were going through day to day, they might better understand. Originally this was just for family and friends, a message to say “please get here, we need you and stop wasting time”. It was really out of necessity at first.

And did it work?

Yes, thankfully, family and friends really started to rally around us again. Of course, this evolved into something different. As it started to grow, we hoped to show people the importance of having a support group for someone going through this. Everyone will face this in a different way, but we were open with our experience. Jen kept a blog on her experience so that people could find information about treatments, medications, etc. So my photos were really just an extension of what Jen was already doing.

Was it therapeutic for you and for Jen? A way to get through the battle together?

I think it helped both of us in our own ways. A lot of times writing was a release for Jennifer. It helped knowing that this was helping other people, and that we were making something positive out of something horrible. For me, the photos were a bit of an escape – more so now than at the time. They help me remember what we faced and how we got through it. There were a lot of thoughts at the time I had to put off to take care of Jen – thoughts that the photographs help me to address now. At the time, taking care of Jennifer was priority. I didn’t think too much about the photographs until after Jen passed – that’s when I really started working.

Were there moments that felt too intimate or vulnerable to photograph?

Yeah, I was always very aware of Jennifer and what was going on around us. I wasn’t going to break that trust. Basically if something moved me in my gut, I knew it was time to make a photograph. I tried not to think too much. And at certain moments I knew it was not time to bring a camera out.

The photographs on your website are all seem to be from your perspective. Did you ever pass the camera on to Jen or someone else?
Jen made some photos that she posted on her blog and once in a while a friend would stop by and take a portrait of us two. But mainly it’s my photos that make up the definitive collection.

How do you remember Jennifer?

I think I’m learning more every day. Jen was the kind of person to make the most of everything life threw at her. She found the good in things and believed in things with all her heart. I always admired that. Now, I find myself getting really busy, especially with getting our story out, and sometimes I’d look out a window and realize I haven’t gone outside all day. Jen and the photos remind me not to take life for granted and enjoy what you do. Jen would always find little things like this little keychain that says “love what you do” on one side and “do what you love” on the other. So that’s how Jen lived and encouraged me to live my life. So I’m learning to think about the big picture and balance being alive at each moment versus thinking about the future. The photos ground me.

Is that the vision you would like people to have and remember of Jennifer?

I hope they see a lot of things. I want people to see someone who was a fighter who didn’t give up. There’s a video on my website of when we went to the ocean a few months before Jen passed. She was using a walker and wasn’t sure if she could swim, which made her sad because it was a simple thing she hoped to do. After a couple of days she overcame that fear and I have photographs of her floating in the ocean. I want people to see that despite the cancer spreading through her body, this woman still did the things she loved. There’s so much that we see every day that’s horrible. And these photographs – even though cancer and death are a part of them – I believe they’re more about love and life. That’s what I want people, and myself, to see.

When did you decide to publish the photos online?

A friend suggested that I put them online around July 2011. We had a really strong response, and it was humbling. There were women who had cancer who told us they had been ready to quit but after seeing Jennifer, decided to keep fighting. A few women said they scheduled mammograms because of Jennifer. And that’s when we realized the importance of our story. It continued on through Facebook and my website to the point it’s at now.

Do you have a particular photograph that stands out for you? Is there a story behind it?

There are a lot of stories behind the photos. I think my favourite photographs are the ones of Jen and me, where I’d hold the camera out. Jen loved doing that and it was the two of us crammed together. But really I love all of them because I remember each moment and everything going on. It was our life. The more I look at them the more I realize this really happened and wasn’t a crazy nightmare. I think these photos are about love, not loss. They have a really special place in my heart.

In memory of Jen you’re creating a non-profit organization to assist women with breast cancer. Could you tell us a bit about it?

I’m working on a non-profit called The Love you Share, and I’m close to getting my application sent in for non-profit status. It’ll be based in New York and I will reimburse women [with breast cancer] for their transportation costs and grocery deliveries through an organization called Fresh Direct. I just want to make life a little easier for people receiving treatment. We found that it was always the little things that we appreciated most throughout the experience. Someone would send us dinner after a treatment or stop by with food – it made a huge difference when we were exhausted and overwhelmed.

How can we help?

I have to wait for non-profit status before I solicit donations, but if you could keep checking back, I’m hoping to get non-profit status in the next few months.
I am also working on a book with Whitney Johnson, the director of photography of The New Yorker. She is going to edit the book with me so that’ll be another way to get our story out to people. So sharing our page is greatly appreciated, and keep checking back for updates on the book and non-profit.

Do you have any photography projects lined up for the future?

I have a few different ideas. I have an exhibition with these photos as well. But what I’d like to do is set up portrait sessions for people with breast cancer and their families. I’d like to photograph men, women, and children going through this. I’ve realized through talking with people that many people don’t make photographs. At a bereavement meeting, I met a woman who only had one picture of her husband who passed. It was heartbreaking to think that she just had this one photo to remember him. I’d like to take photographs of people so they have them. I think it’s so important to document our lives.

How has this experience impacted you as a person?

I’m still figuring that out. I’m trying to figure out who I am again, what I believe in, and what I want to do with my life. This experience has taught me a lot about what and who I think is important, how I want to spend my time, and really thinking about every moment. Simple things like, now that it’s springtime, opening a window and letting the breeze come in. I also think a lot more about what other people are going through. I think I’m much more compassionate now, and I’m trying to embrace the good in life no matter what happens.

Any other messages would like to leave with readers?

Make photographs of the people in your life. With our phones and digital cameras it’s all accessible. So don’t be afraid to photograph your best friend, girlfriend, husband, mom… Embrace these seconds and have fun. Tell people you love them. I tell my family and friends I love them all the time, and I do it for myself. I’m not worried if they say it back or not. Don’t wait too long, and do it because you feel it.