Cancer recovery through photography

David Aureden takes us along with him on his journey through cancer recovery, and how film photography has helped with his rehabilitation.

Early last February an outstanding medical team opened my skull and brain to remove as much as they could find of a malignant tumor. The tumor had made its unwelcome presence known in a most dramatic fashion – I had had a seizure and fallen into a hole we’d just cut in ice-locked Skaneateles lake in preparation for a Polar Bear Plunge. 


The good news: it was an excellent surgery, which is the critical foundation for living successfully with brain cancer.
The unintended side affect: losing roughly 30% of my vision on the left hand side with no hope for a surgical remedy. For a while afterwards, color perception was also affected: everything looked muddier, darker, less bright. Over the past several months the color perception seems to have been remedied, or then again maybe I’ve just gotten used to it and can’t tell the difference anymore.

Let’s back up.

While living in Moscow in the late ’90’s, with zero experience in photography, I purchased a Kiev 60 and several lenses (the Arsat 30/F3.5 fish-eye was spectacular, as was the Zeiss-Jena Flektagon 50), and have been an avid film photographer ever since.

There was too much wonderful, different and marvelous in and around Moscow to not record it on film. Mind-bogglingly, I didn’t even have a light meter, and set the aperture and speed by guess and using the stop-down feature on all the Russian and East German lenses. Most of the photos were well exposed. When they weren’t, I tended to over-expose.

In those early days I really didn’t understand much about exposure length and it’s relation to film speed. It didn’t hurt that Kodak had set up a professional lab in Moscow where I could get the film developed. Then the Leica bug hit hard. The mechanical bordering on mystical wonders of an M3 and 50DR Summicron are hard to beat.

Nikon has also stubbornly wedged itself firmly into my camera bags (the 55/2.8 micro and 28/2.8 AIS are treasured), but my photographic soul is still happiest when shooting medium format – even though the Kiev’s and Pentacon’s are long gone. Now it’s Fuji 670 and 690. What marvelous beasts! The muddled thought process that led me to sell the Zeiss Super Ikonta B still perturbs me. I dearly miss it and the distinct output of the uncoated Zeiss Jena lens.

Without digressing too far into well trodden territory, there really is no need to improve on the M3 – it’s about the photographer improving, not the equipment. And I don’t need to update my equipment every two years. Yeah, right. Did someone say “Lomo LCA 120?” That’s not an update, it’s an addition (additions are an undeniable problem).


So: reduced vision, chemo and radiation therapy zapping my brain (the affected areas on the MRI brain scans look like a cross between an algae blooms and a volcano), exhaustion, lethargy, confusion, depression, and all during a gloomy Central New York March/April where it felt like it would never be spring – just mud, dirty snow and glowering grey skies – yuck. Well, the grass did grow, the flowers did bloom, the sun came out, we went swimming in the lovely Finger Lakes and it seems like my color recognition is better.

I’ve got a lot of time on my hands while recuperating. The chemo has rendered me relatively useless for anything more than taking out the trash, walking the dog, making the bed and cooking dinner.
I can’t drive, so no errands of that sort. I’m also easily confused or distracted: “Chemo brain.” It’s taking longer to find the things I’m looking for, like this morning when I couldn’t find my wallet, even though it was right there in front of me on the desk.
Thankfully, there are still days when the urge to photograph is insistent enough that I get up off the couch and actually take a picture. I suspect the loss of vision means I’m not seeing potential pictures to the left that are worth taking, but for a while I was truly concerned that I wouldn’t be able to assess photograph-worthy opportunities at all.
I have to remind myself to scan to the left, otherwise It’s just not there. And when I don’t remind myself to scan to the left I start bumping into walls, desks and furniture which is a good reminder: “hey, look to the left.” 

It takes longer to get everything ready, so spontaneous pictures have decreased. I recently got everything set for a photo with the M3: take the light reading, wait, did I have the right film speed dialed in; frame and focus, wait – set the aperture and length of exposure. Frame again and focus. Click. Damn – I forgot to take off the lens cap.

A tripod works wonders with these new parameters/limitations, especially as I often don’t have much energy to go roaming about outside: long exposures of family in low light settings sitting on the couch; flower photography. I quickly realized it was easier to move the flowers than try and re-focus the DR Summicron; a remote release. The Nikon FA is better for the macro photography and long exposures. I get confused trying to figure out the right long exposure settings with the hand-held light meter, or even using the light meter app on the I-phone, although several of my “guess” exposures have turned out well (or well enough for me).

Not working also means reduced financial circumstances. Why continue with film given its cost vs. digital?


Computer screens have become treacherous with the reduced vision. Writing takes much longer and it’s easy to lose my place. Screens and menus on digital cameras are even more impenetrable. Going thru camera menus is demoralizing, compounded by the deteriorating eyesight. A kind friend lent me his Nikon D200 –  a wonderful tool, which has mostly sat in a box for the past several months. I’ve tried it several times. It is convenient and immediate, but somehow doesn’t sing the siren’s song of irresistibility. I must send it back! So those are the logical reasons for continuing with film.

Here’s the real reason: film photography is something I can still do, one little thing that I control and doesn’t control me, even if it takes longer and the fail rate is more expensive.
It is a tangible, touchable, harder to erase and forget reminder that my point-of-view matters, just a little bit. And because film is what I know and I’m desperately holding on to what I know. It’s something from life before cancer that provides a sense of continuity back to when we weren’t living in the lurking gloom the disease casts around itself.
It takes even longer now to focus and frame than it did before, and I can’t see the various camera controls so easily to manually set the shutter speed, aperture and focus – for example with the Rollei 35S. It’s a challenge to stubbornly, gladly embrace. I can still do this. I will still do this. It will just take a lot longer than before.
I can hold on to film. A roll of film, a strip of negatives, a strip of slide film. There is no comparison between that and holding an sd card of digital files. The film wins every time. There’s something about the box, the canister, and making a choice about the right film for the expected subjects. It’s a chance to exert influence and control, to implement my strategy, not a re-active strategy dictated by cancer. It’s about about recording things MY way, not what the MRI scans or blood analysis reports back. Yes, I realize it’s an irrational point of view.


Film takes time. Time to use up a roll, time to send it in to be developed, time to review the scans, time to edit (yes, digitally . . . I know). The anticipation of undeveloped film gives me something to look forward to, which is a key factor in keeping me going.
Here in the State of Cancer it’s really helpful to have things to look forward to. I save up my rolls of film for 2 – 3 months before sending a whole tranche of them off to Dwayne’s for development. What will Dwayne’s send back? Film has the element of surprise – did I capture that moment as I saw it, or did the camera/film combination somehow get it better?
There is so much pleasure in the anticipation of reviewing the scans, finding photos that deliver against what I thought I was doing, finding photos that I don’t even remember taking that exceed expectations. There are always a few wonderful  shots that I don’t remember taking, many shots of what I thought would be good that are mundane or just wasted. It’s become a goal – be more choice-full about each negative – which means it takes even longer to get thru the roll. And if the roll isn’t finished, it’s a reminder that I’ve got things to do, but need to wait for the right moment. Learning patience is a good thing. And that means I’m still very much alive – Brain Cancer be damned.

New Film!

Digital is clearly a big part of my work-flow post exposure, but I’m not ready to go digital from start to finish. There is a big pile of unused film upstairs that still needs to be exposed. Ilford just announced a new film! I can keep loading more film, which gives me more to look forward to, maybe gain even more time. They certainly stop time, the pictures, the best ones – times of happiness and beauty. And because they are physical, they seem more permanent. I can touch them, which is the next best thing to returning to the moment and place where the photo was taken.

From as dispassionate a view as I can muster, it seems like visual disability and the effects of cancer have slowed down my approach to photography, changed my perspective and pared down potential subject matter. None of these things are bad. If anything, perhaps they’ve helped improve the output. More fundamentally, film photography has become an act of life affirming defiance in the face of the storm this disease has brought to our shores. Who’d have thought that loading a roll of Ektachrome into a Nikon FA would be defiant?

The output is becoming increasingly meaningful because it won’t stretch out for all those decades I thought it would. Now it’s transitioning from something I enjoy doing to an analog record of the final things I saw, what I thought was important and worth recording.
It’s a body of work. Much more meaningful than all those power point presentations I’ve written to earn a paycheck. Powerpoint is not permanent. It’s digital, disposable and forgettable. Powerpoint presentations are meant to move a project forward and lose their relevance once the project goals have been achieved. Who ever published a power-point presentation in hardback? How many of you reading this have a cherished powerpoint presentation you keep handy to continually refer to, enjoy and reference? To pull out late at night and smile over while leafing thru it. I’m guessing the answer is not too many.
Film is less disposable and not immediate. It is longevity. I’m particularly sensitive to “disposable” given my condition. It will be over soon enough that anything which ties me to life, makes me less disposable, is worth it. Film sticks around physically (you should see my storage closet)- and any means of longevity is increasingly important, for reasons mentioned earlier.
This summer my mother and I went through a photo album of a trip she took with her family to Florida in the 1950’s. The color prints are somewhat faded and starting to soften, but the black and whites are still tightly defined, clear and crisp. The prints felt even more timeless as I’m looking more and more like my maternal grandfather – who was my age in many of those B&W’s – and who died of cancer when he was 60.

I know printing has gone digital, and can be magnificent (my prints are all from scans now, anyway), so I recognize the two faced nature in my argument, but I’ve got license.
It’s a much weightier decision to throw away a strip of negatives. They don’t take up that much space. The shots have to be really bad before I can bring myself to throw any negatives away. I’ve a whole closet full of prints and negatives from the past 22 years of photography.
I’m not fooling myself. They will be increasingly irrelevant as each year passes. One of my projects next year will be to put all of the negatives into proper storage, label and order them chronologically. My wife or daughters will eventually have to throw away the prints (there are so many of them), but the negatives may end up traveling around with the girls over the decades until one of them gets annoyed and has them scanned (digital, again. Inescapable). Or at least I hope so.

More importantly than all those snapshots are the photos that my wife and I have chosen to enlarge and frame. I take at least one a year that has enough meaning to earn a place on one of our walls. And I intend to keep trying for those until I can’t. Those images are guilty of idealizing a time, place and moment to more than what we thought it was at the time and serve to convince us how special and precious it was right then. So be it. The past, and the present which becomes the past as it happens, are increasingly important. Isn’t that what photography is about?

David Aureden