Stephen L. Starkman travelled the globe snapping portraits and for so much of his life, people – specifically their faces – were central to his work.
Then in the midst of a global pandemic and with the runway in front of him abruptly shortened, Mr. Starkman’s artistic motivations shifted. The 64-year-old, from Bowmanville, Ont., was diagnosed in July, 2021, with small cell lung carcinoma, a rare, fast-spreading cancer with a very low survival rate. Instead of taking photos of others around the world, he trained his camera on his own life. He wanted to log his journey with cancer, however long it was, but not just documentary style – he wanted to capture his emotions, his shifting perceptions of the world around him, the isolation of both terminal illness and the pandemic.
Some of the photos were surreptitiously snapped at the hospital on his cell phone. Others were taken on his trusted DSLR. On a windy day last winter, Mr. Starkman’s wife Debi drove him out to a field so he could photograph the falling snow on a film camera he’d not used in 20 years. There was a small thrill that came from the uncertainty of how the pictures would turn out.
This fall, Mr. Starkman published 45 of his photographs in the book The Proximity of Mortality: A Visual Artist’s Journey Through Cancer – a project he raced to finish when he learned his cancer had spread to his brain, leaving him with what might only be weeks to live. He spoke to The Globe and Mail’s Dakshana Bascaramurty about five of those photos.
Mr. Starkman calls this photo “The Missing Piece” and it’s taken on different meanings at different stages of his illness. At first it represented his collapsed lung, then, more broadly, his failing health. He’s scheduled to have brain surgery at the end of November and the gap in the wall now represents that procedure and how it might leave him.
He’s terrified of the surgery and all its possible outcomes. He’s scared of dying on the operating table. He’s afraid of being impaired in some way after. He’s nervous he’ll come out a different person, but not know he’s a different person.
“It’s not a certain thing. If I’m cognitively transformed, then my guess right now is that I might not even be aware of it,” he said.
Mr. Starkman snapped this “visual puzzle” with a very long telephoto lens that was focused on blades of grass behind a fence. The distant focal point makes the fence disappear but not the raindrops that were on it – the lens transforms them into ethereal bubbles.
“I just thought it was magical,” Mr. Starkman said. “Magical can be seeing an airplane fly for the first time just held up by its own wings. Magical can be medical procedures or things in the medical field that I have no idea about.”
Some days, while ill and depleted, Mr. Starkman didn’t and couldn’t stray far from home but found ways to see new things. In March, while recovering from treatment, he stepped out the back door of his home with his camera and photographed a quiet snowfall.
He captured all the layers of falling snow in different focal planes and appreciated how it took a second for the brain to catch up with the eyes and process what was in the image. The photo reminded him of the brain fog he struggled through after radiation. It always took a split second for him to name the experience of knowing his thinking was clouded in some way.
“You’re looking inwards, you’re looking at maybe what is going on in your brain. Although this looks familiar and feels familiar, it’s not.”
Mr. Starkman’s diagnosis came a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic and to fight the extra layer of isolation that it brought, he signed up for many photography courses and experimented with techniques and tools he’d never used before. This photo was a happy accident after playing with an inexpensive new lens he’d bought. The eye is drawn first to the brightest spot in the picture – the sun – and then follows the bright swirl of light that bleeds from it, coloured like an oil slick.
It’s a photo that’s triggered philosophical musings: he shot it near the start of his journey with cancer, when he says he had no idea “the worst of it was yet to come.” It’s the bright, brief blur of his life but also the planet’s.
“It’s the circle of life,” he says. “We all came from this dying red giant star.”
Mr. Starkman did chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously, a punishing cycle. After one treatment, he passed out, was strapped to a gurney and wheeled to emergency, where they declared a Code Blue.
He took a self-portrait on every other trip to the hospital. In this one, after he’d lost his hair to the chemo and was feeling particularly depleted, he clutched his IV pole as though it was a bar on a jail cell.
He was grateful for the team who treated him, who were trying to save his life or at least extend it, but he was also filled with rage that he had cancer.
“The book is full of dichotomies. The dichotomy in chemo is you’re killing everything in order to get the cancer cells and it seems like a really crude and horrible thing to do,” he said.
He felt like he was always living in a state of danger. “You can just get a phone call and your life can turn on a dime. That’s the scary part. That’s the really, really scary part.”
To see more of Mr. Starkman’s words and pictures, visit stephenstarkman.com