The Photo-essayist

By
Photography Nancy Borowick

Published December 27, 2016

PHOTOS AND CAPTIONS: NANCY BOROWICK

Nancy Borowick’s mother Laurel and father Howie were both diagnosed with stage-four cancer when she was in her twenties. As a nearly involuntary response, she took out her camera. The New York native documented it all: hospital visits, chemotherapy, family dinners, phone calls from doctors, and her parents attending her own wedding despite being in treatment. Borowick was acting in the way she knew how—as a photojournalist—but she was also a daughter struggling with her parents’ imminent mortality. The resulting photographs form Cancer Family, a series that’s less about illness than it is the story of a family’s strength and perseverance; during the one year that Howie and Laurel Borowick’s diseases overlapped (they passed away a year apart from one another in 2013 and 2014), they insisted on making each other laugh and held onto their spirit, as cliché as that may seem.

Borowick, now 31, has traveled to France, Malaysia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Germany, and Holland to share Cancer Family and will continue to exhibit it in 2017 throughout the United States and Europe. While in the past she has separated the body of work into three chapters—”Together,” “Without Him,” and “Losing Her”—her new Kickstarter-funded book titled The Family Imprint (Hatje Cantz) emphasizes her parents’ entire life experience. “They were so many more things than cancer patients,” says Borowick. “I felt like I could emphasize that by including the old photographs.” The Family Imprint, which will be released June 1, features found family photos, notes, holiday cards, and letters that her parents shared in addition to images from Cancer Family. It’s an act of remembrance as well as a signpost for Borowick, who will move forward to new bodies of work while carrying this one with her.

Interview recently spoke over the phone with Borowick—who has photographed for The New York Times and The Washington Post—to discuss her early influences, photographing as a coping mechanism, and future projects. 

TESS MAYER: Were your parents creative?

NANCY BOROWICK: My parents were actually both lawyers, though they were both creative people and encouraged creative outlets. My mom was really crafty and my dad was very theatrical. When I said I was thinking about pursuing a career in photography they were like, “Okay, we’ll allow you to get your butt out there and see if it’s possible.” I started shooting when I was 14 in high school. I loved it. I never actually thought I could turn it into a career or a life.

I’ve had a lot of time in these last couple years for self-reflection and to think about where certain qualities that I have came from… I have a really funny memory; when I was in first or second grade my mom got a phone call from my teacher letting her know that I was the class tattletale. I look at that now and I think it makes sense. As a photographer and as a storyteller you have this built in need to tell other people’s stories. I think I also in some ways cared about justice and fairness, which maybe was a reflection of who my parents were as lawyers and as advocates, which also makes a lot of sense in the world of photojournalism.

MAYER: Who were some of your favorite photographers when you started shooting?

BOROWICK: Starting out I always loved—not necessarily that our work is particularly similar—but I loved Gordon Parks and Jacob Riis. … The drive for storytelling came from the impact both of their bodies of work had on culture and society. One of the photographers that inspired me a lot who has actually become a good friend of mine, because of my project and what I went through with my family, is Stephanie Sinclair. She has basically devoted her life to use photography to raise awareness, create change, and end child marriage. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She keeps persevering. Her work is stunning and it has made such global impact. She’s spoken at the UN and started an organization to continue to help women and children—she never stops.

MAYER: To talk about the Cancer Family project, I think one of my biggest curiosities lies in that the photos are hugely personal to you and your own family. I’m wondering how you went about sharing the images for the first time and who you shared them with outside of your family.

BOROWICK: When I was photographing my parents I wasn’t thinking about the photograph or our story as a larger project. I was just going through the motions. I didn’t know how much time we had and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. When you’re a photographer and you’re working on a personal project, the risk is that you’re too close and therefore you might not see certain things that could be important to the story. I didn’t want to look back years later and say, “Ugh, man, I wish I had included this.” I knew that it was important to share the work with someone else who is not so close to it and get some perspective on what I might be missing or what I should dive deeper into. These were my parents, so I’m very familiar with them and our home, so I was nervous that I was going to miss things that were not so obvious because it was just my normal. I showed them to one of my teachers from [the International Center of Photography] who was an editor. I asked if I could sit down and share them with her. Then she asked me if I had shared the photographs with anyone other than her and my family. I said, “Of course not!” I hadn’t thought about the work in any sort of larger capacity—I wasn’t even calling it “the work.” And she said, “Well, I think you should because I think it would be really meaningful to a lot of people.”

There was a random photo contest in New York and I submitted. I knew who the judges were, and I didn’t have access to these people normally, so I thought that if I submitted to the contest maybe my work would cross their path. That was a huge lesson for me. And it paid off. I didn’t win the contest but James Estrin from The New York Times was one of the judges and I got an email from him a few days later saying, “I want to run this on Lens

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.” I was in shock. I don’t think he remembered that this was how it happened but that’s how he saw the work. There was no other way he would have seen it. At that point I remember going to my parents and telling them that The New York Times wants to run our photographs and asked what they thought. And they just asked, “Why? Why is anyone going to care about our story?” Something we didn’t realize then but what we realized later was that people did care, and that wondering why was answered because life and death and cancer and illness are all pieces of the universal human experience. There’s nothing more universal than life and death—that is the cycle. It was surreal to see the impact and the reactions.

MAYER: As someone who is also a photographer, part of why the project holds so much weight is that your parents seem so open and comfortable, but it’s easy to forget that there is that camera there in-between you. How did your family open up to the camera? Was that a process or did you talk about it?

BOROWICK: It wasn’t all that difficult but it was funny at times. They were pretty comfortable having me around with the camera because I was always with the camera. But I wasn’t always around, so when I started spending a lot more time with my parents I was a novelty. I didn’t live at home [in Chappaqua, New York] anymore, so if anything it was difficult for me to be there and be that fly on the wall that I really wanted to be, because they were so hyper-aware of my presence. It was a challenge. I had photographed my mom when she had her first recurrence when I was a student at ICP back in 2009. I had photographed her already in this sort of environment and my father, after he was diagnosed, went to my mom and asked, “Do you think Nancy would photograph me?” So they were both very open and comfortable, which is amazing because many people will say to me, “These are your parents—you must have had so much access.” It’s a double-edged sword; I had a lot of access but with that access came unbelievable responsibility.

MAYER: One of my favorite photos from the series is The Kitchen Dance with your mom and dad dancing. Could you tell me the backstory of what was going on there?

BOROWICK: We were having dinner; it was a normal dinner. My dad was always sort of goofy and so was my mom. Humor and goofiness is in our DNA. I remember we were sitting down and eating and my dad was just being weird, which was so nice to see because the cancer and the chemo took so much from them—it robbed so much, their energy and much of their identity. So the fact that they could still bust a move and make each other laugh was such a beautiful thing. That photograph exists within a series of six; I shot it sort of in motor drive.

I look at it now and he looks so skinny and gaunt, so does my mom. I look at [the series] and I remember the essence of who they were and what made them so special, so inspiring and courageous. I worried at some point I’d look back—these photographs are taken during a time where they are dying of cancer—but they don’t remind me of that. I remember the joy and the laughter, the fact that they were able to find and experience all of that, and they were the sick ones. If they were finding a way to live and enjoy life then I needed to do the same.

MAYER: There are a few different projects on dogs that you’re working on as Part of the Pack, like the breeders and the Westminster Dog Show. It seems like it’s a very specific subculture. How did you start that? You’ve mentioned it started right after the Cancer Family project. 

BOROWICK: It was during and after. As a photographer, people continued to advise me that it’s important for my sanity, and that when working on a personal project you have to work on other projects as well. Photography was my creative outlet and then I was using it as a way of processing this devastating thing I’m going through—I had to find another focus. I love dogs and they make me happy so I thought, “Who cares what the industry thinks of me. I would like to do something that makes me blindly happy.” It started out completely superficial and surface level. I went to the dog shows and was photographing what I was drawn to. I look at them now and realize I was drawn to these intimate relationships between the dogs and the humans. I then realized that what I was actually looking at was a family dynamic. Maybe I was drawn to that because I had just lost a big piece of my own family and was curious as to how people define family—conventional or not. At the same time I wanted to hang around dogs! It was the perfect therapy. I needed that.

MAYER: Do you remember what your very first assignment was?

BOROWICK: My very first assignment? [laughs] It was terrible. I met an editor from Newsday and she was excited to give me an opportunity. She asked me if I had a car, and I said, “Of course I have a car.” She told me that on Long Island you need a car to get places. I lied. I did not have a car. But I knew that I could find a way to get a car, like rent or borrow one. I also knew that there was a line of photographers out the door waiting for these opportunities, so I was not prepared to give her an opportunity to say no. The assignment was to shoot a hotel; I get to the hotel and it was this rundown place. I went out there and shot that hotel like it was the most important assignment of my life. I think it was because I needed to prove that I could take something mildly interesting and make it beautiful. I needed to show that I was worth keeping around.

MAYER: And you moved to Guam not too long ago. Are you starting any projects there?

BOROWICK: I have a couple of projects I’m thinking of doing while I’m out here, but I haven’t started them yet… One of the projects I’m going to start while I’m here is looking at identity, particularly in Chamorro culture. They are the indigenous people of Guam and some of the nearby islands. It’s a culture that’s disappearing. I think that I’m drawn to that because, in a time when I’ve grown up a lot learned about myself, I’m still questioning, “What is identity to me?” Especially now that my parents are gone, the only way for me to truly dig into a project is to find a parallel or relationship to my own life.

THE FAMILY IMPRINT (HATJE CANTZ) WILL BE RELEASED ON JUNE 1, 2017. FOR MORE ON NANCY BOROWICK, VISIT HER WEBSITE.

For more from our “Faces of 2017” portfolio, click here.