real life

When Nancy's parents were both diagnosed with terminal cancer, she picked up her camera.

As a kid, Nancy Borowick was fascinated with other people’s lives. While most children were absorbed in their own bounded worlds, she was looking outward; watching, asking questions.

“I always loved getting to know people,” the 33-year-old American told Mamamia. “You know and when kids are young and their parents say ‘Don’t talk to strangers’, I was that child talking to strangers. I couldn’t stop myself. I was so curious.”

Photography was a natural extension of that curiosity, a legitimised way to invite herself into the homes and lives of people she barely knew.

But in 2013 she found herself turning her camera on those she knew most deeply – her parents. Howie and Laurel had both been diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer. The pancreatic cancer was a first for her father, but it was the third occurrence of her mother’s breast cancer.

Married 34 years, suddenly their future was confined to months.

"About to start new rounds of chemotherapy treatment, Dad and Mom took a last minute trip to Florida." - Nancy

With her camera, Nancy immortalised what she could.

"I couldn't heal them - I have no medical expertise. But maybe I could document their story," she said. "And I think, in many ways, I also was desperately trying to hold onto everything I could. I knew I was losing them. And if I could capture them, if I could capture the essence of who they were, [then] I could hold on to that forever."


The result, currently on display as part of Sydney's Head on Photo Festival, earned her second place in the long-term projects category at the prestigious World Press photo awards in 2016.

One of the first images Nancy took for the series was this:

"Dad called these 'his and hers chairs.' For him it was new and unknown, and for her it was business as usual, another appointment on her calendar." - Nancy

Her parents receiving weekly chemotherapy treatment, side by side.

"I didn't think too much about why I was doing it, beyond maybe just trying to figure out a way to be there without completely falling apart," Nancy said.

Howie passed away on December 7, 2013. Laurel's condition deteriorated rapidly after that, and she died 364 days later.

Looking back now, Nancy now realises her camera served her as a shield of sorts, one that kept her at a "safe" distance from the reality of what was unfolding around her.

Because beyond the doctor appointments, the scans, the quiet moments that passed between them at home, Nancy also photographed the moments of anguish, of agony - their final breaths, her mother's body being carried out of her home, her father's open casket.

"I'm a very emotional person, and I don't think I could have lived what we were living in real-time without the assistance of my camera," she said. "I don't think I could have been as strong for them as they needed me to be."

"Mom rested on the shoulder of her son, Matthew, as they rode in the limousine to Dad’s burial on Long Island." - Nancy

One of the few times Nancy lowered her lens - that shield - was at hospital while her father awaited surgery. A nurse was attempting to find a vein into which she could insert the IV.

"Who knows why I was watching the nurse, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. And the next thing I know, I'm being walked into a room next door and put on a bed. I think I began to faint watching this moment happen," she said.

"It occurred to me after that point that perhaps why I had that reaction [was because] it was probably one of the first and only moments I didn't have a camera glued to my face. It reaffirmed for me just how important and vital it was that I was photographing.

"I now say it was cathartic, but I didn't know. Then here we are, my body really reacting to what I was experiencing."

"No matter how many times her cancer returned, Mom found a way to live her life and not take it too seriously in spite of this reality." - Nancy

More than three years on from her mother's death, the way Nancy looks at the images, their meaning to her, continues to evolve.

"They taught us so many lessons before they died. They shared so much with us. And I think we tried to digest everything possible during that time," she said. "But it took time and space and healing for my siblings and I to then look back and really understand what we were going through."

But since the World Press Photo awards in 2016 and subsequent coverage in The New York Times, she has learned from strangers too, viewers who add their own layers to her deeply personal story.

"I feel like my photographs mean something to other people and our story means something to other people when they really see something of themselves in the story. It's very symbiotic. And I thrive on that."

While she photographed her parents for herself, for her family, that symbiosis is why she shares them with others.

"Every time I get to tell the stories of my parents it helps me remember who they were, and their strengths and their weaknesses and their grace. I think one of my biggest fears after they died was, you know, maybe forgetting some of those things. Because that's what happens; life goes on, you grow, you change," she said.

"And maybe I wasn't ready or will never be ready, really, to let them go. But I get to keep them alive and keep their memory alive by sharing their stories."

Nancy's work is showing as part of the Head On Photo Festival in Sydney until May 20.