Twenty images which reveal the true faces of cancer

In December 2017, I was diagnosed with stage 3 Breast Cancer and my world was turned upside down.

I will never forget the words “You almost certainly have cancer” and the frenzy of tests and biopsies that followed.

The scariest thing when receiving a cancer diagnosis is not knowing how bad it is, what the treatment plan will be or what the future holds.

New Year 2018 was very emotional and instead of the celebrations, there were tears at the fear of what 2018 would mean for our family. I imagined months of feeling ill and not being able to do anything and I was so scared of losing my creativity as an artist & photographer.

To read more about my story please see my post about Life Changing Events

Due to intensive surgery and treatment, I had to temporarily suspend my newborn and children’s portraiture business, as contact with young children was not advised during chemotherapy due to the risk of infection with my low immune system (although I am photographing children once more, as chemotherapy is now complete).

Chemotherapy takes place in cycles (mine was every 3 weeks for one regimen and every 2 weeks for the other). The first week was always the worst, but the I gradually started to feel a bit better and although I was tired, I was able to get out and about and do things to enjoy life, contrary to the bed bound months I had envisioned. Yes, it was tough and there were some times that I felt awful, but I relished the good days and planned to do things during the weeks I knew I would be feeling a bit better.

I’ve tried to maintain a positive attitude throughout my treatment, which will continue for at least 3 years, and one thing that really struck me was how often people expect cancer patients to retreat into a miserable haze. Yes, there are dark days, but the emotions that accompany this journey are varied. I decided to keep going with the photography that I could, and found it very therapeutic taking self-portraits depicting the emotions and side effects I was experiencing. After speaking to my oncologist and seeing his reaction to the photographs, my images became a project and included other people and so “Faces of Cancer” was born.

The idea of “Faces of Cancer” is to break stereotypical opinions about people with cancer and show people the range of emotions which can be experienced.

Everyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis has a different journey and each journey is as individual as the person undertaking it.  Not everyone who has cancer will require chemotherapy or radiotherapy; for a few, surgery alone will suffice and some people with cancer may not look ill at all.

There are so many ups and downs when going through treatment, as people try to cope physically & emotionally with the diagnosis, treatment and side effects. With modern drugs, although chemotherapy causes nausea and vomiting, patients are given a variety of anti-sickness drugs, to prevent them from spending days hunched over a sick bucket, so although nausea does occur, it is now managed far better than in previous years.

Not all drugs cause hair loss and “cold-capping” which freezes the hair follicles, may slow down or limit the amount of hair which falls out.

The side effects of all the drugs effect everyone differently, so every person has a unique story to tell.

The images in this project show varying emotions and feelings associated with dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. It features self portraits and images of others, all of whom are either currently undergoing or have had treatment for cancer.

The images are all cropped square to create order in the panel in contrast with the turbulent chaos of cancer.

Being in black & white gives a timeless feel to the images and the gritty, edgy post production gives a raw and emotional feel to the faces and a sense of truth and reality, very different from many of today’s retouched and “perfected” images.

The idea is to show the subjects as they are, not as an idealised version of themselves, in order to raise awareness of the emotions, both positive and negative, of cancer sufferers.

On 12 September 2018, I travelled to Darlington to the headquarters of the Master Photographers Association. A selection of 20 of the images was submitted to a panel of world renowned judges to be considered for an associateship. I was stunned and delighted when the judges deemed it worthy of an upgrade and awarded me a Fellowship with the Master Photographers Association.

“Fellowship of the MPA, is a very difficult qualification to achieve within the photographic profession, as this takes a great deal of time, work and dedication to your art to reach this level. Many photographers entering the Association remain at Licentiate level, so reaching the required high standards of this qualification is a massive achievement. Not only do you have to submit an extensive panel of photographic images, which are displayed and judged in front of 5 highly respected Fellows of the industry, but you also must produce an in depth working profile, about your work and business practices. This document covers essential elements such as Health & Safety, that must be understood when dealing with the public, and also documents a photographers creative approach and future ambitions. The Master Photographers Association has been qualifying the best photographers for over 65 years. To become a fellow, a photographer must demonstrate a distinctive style, with individual flair and originality, and excellence of craftsmanship.”

I was amazed when one of the world’s top photographers and international judge, Trevor Yerbury, posted the following on facebook, “I have judged many A&F qualification panels over the years for several photographic bodies but there are always a few, very few, that will forever remain in your mind. Today was one of those rare moments when a panel for an A qualification was judged. After a couple of minutes viewing the images I simply replaced my score pad and said to my fellow judges I cannot even begin to take marks away from such an stunning and emotional body of work. My fellow judges were in total agreement and following a brief discussion we all agreed that we should award the author a Fellowship of the Master Photographers Association such was the impact her work had on us all. Thank you to my fellow judges and Chair of Qualifications for their support and if you ever get to view this work I implore you to take the opportunity. It was a very emotional moment and a few tears were shed! Many, many congratulations to Imelda Bell. This is what real photography can do.”

Trevor’s equally renowned wife, Faye, who is also a world class photographer and judge shared the images, saying the following, “Sharing one of the most incredible panels of work I have ever been invited to judge for the assessment of Associateship. It was so well put together, thought out and as creative as I have ever witnessed. The photography for close up portraiture and the quality of the presentation meant that as we looked at one another on the team we just had to resubmit it as a FELLOWSHIP and that is exactly what Imelda was awarded with. Congratulations, Imelda, and I hope you give many photographers the inspiration to do what you have done. Simplistic and beautiful photography made a wonderful collection of images.”

In spite of the bleak start, there have been many good things come out of my year dealing with cancer. I received a special recognition award with the Guild of Photographers, I was named the regional Photographer of the Year for the London region with the Master Photographers Association, and reached the pinnacle of photographic achievements with my fellowship.

With each photo shoot for “Faces of Cancer”, I felt that I bonded with the person I was photographing.  We spent time talking openly about our experiences of cancer and treatments.  I think that being photographed by someone also undergoing treatment helped everyone to relax and this created a connection and truth in the images. I am now friends with many of the people I photographed and we I chat regularly.

The images I have created are being used by charities and medical professionals to help and educate both patients and doctors. It is my dream to use my photography to make a difference to people and I am hoping to get the images exhibited around the UK and beyond, so that people whose lives are affected by cancer can get some comfort from knowing they are not alone and by seeing the variety of emotions which can be expected.

  On Sunday the 7th October 2018 the twenty images making up my fellowship,  went on to be awarded the Best Fellowship Panel of 2018.

The chairman of the MPA commented, “You have now achieved the greatest accolade possible to any photographer, the BEST Fellowship panel of the year, that stands head and shoulders above anything else you will ever do (except beating the big C). You are now standing at the very top, your future is to help to pull others up behind you, you cannot go higher with other little insignificant awards, you can only strive to improve and inspire others…” That is what I want to do with “Faces of Cancer” inspire not only other photographers, but to help people affected by Cancer, through my imagery, to see that we can continue to live and enjoy life, and although there are scary and dark times, there are also times of happiness, tremendous love and laughter. The aim of my series of images (of which there are now over 60 including about 40 self portraits) is to help people to see that there is still life with cancer, even if it is terminal.
Sadly, on the evening of Monday the 8th October, a day after I was presented with the award, one of the people in my panel, Scott Anderson, passed away . Scott was very proud to appear in this body of work and I was honoured to have got to know him. I want to dedicate my win to Scott and I hope that his portrait along with the others I have created will help people throughout the world to deal with cancer.


Thanks #facesofcancer