In the spring of 2021, Toronto-based photographer Stephen L. Starkman was diagnosed with small cell lung carcinoma. A cancer diagnosis can be shattering for anyone, but for Starkman it was especially personal: Both of his parents died of cancer before the age of 60. After a series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Starkman learned that his aggressive cancer had spread to his brain and was now incurable. At this point, the artist has only weeks or months left to live.
Early on in his illness, Starkman decided to document his experience with his camera. The Proximity of Mortality: A Visual Artist’s Journey Through Cancer (2022) features Starkman’s photos along with poems and quotes from other cancer patients and survivors. Together, the images and texts offer a glimpse at the complex feelings and questions that a cancer diagnosis can inspire. Starkman writes, “This work is about the end of my life,” and calls the book a sort of lasting legacy that he will leave behind. But the photographer’s moving, graceful vision also makes this book about presence, perseverance, and hope.
Starkman’s previous photographic work captured people and places in Mexico, Japan, Morocco, and other countries in vibrant, lively portraits. Here though, his images are closer, quieter, and more open-ended. The thoughtful short writings and large page spreads in The Proximity of Mortality create a steady rhythm of introspection that is punctuated by Starkman’s gentle photographic celebrations of beauty. Vast, eternal nature is the artist’s refuge, and his pictures of water, clouds, and open sky appear to be collected from solitary walks and drives, or perhaps from views seen through the windows of the hospital or his home.
The book also contains a number of sterile, brightly lit hospital interiors that contrast sharply with Starkman’s nature scenes. Empty of patients and doctors, these spaces also include reminders of the pandemic. Social distancing signs tacked to chairs in a waiting room and a self-portrait of the artist wearing a mask are a sort of timestamp within the project that adds an additional layer of threat and hardship to Starkman’s ordeal. Since the book was published, he has had additional radiation treatments and major brain surgery which he described to me in a recent email as “scary as hell.”
The artist is candid about his conflicted state of mind. “Peeking around the corner is fear — and a clock that is ticking. And yet, I still want to have hope,” he writes. The sentiment is illustrated in a photo of a lake where a curtain of ominous gray clouds gives way to clear blue skies in the distance. Two of the most arresting photos in the book are of much smaller subjects: a flurry of snowflakes and a field of fresh grass take on a glowing feeling of everyday magic. Despite the difficulty of his days, Starkman searches for and finds these transcendent moments, and records them with his camera.
In a recent review, the author and health care activist Sue Robins wrote, “Every cancer hospital should share Stephen’s book to start bringing healing to their space.” This is certainly true, but the book also reaches beyond cancer and even illness toward universal human experience. As the photographer Jonathan Blaustein notes in his essay in The Proximity of Mortality, “Life is short yet filled with moments of wonder.”
The Proximity of Mortality: A Visual Artist’s Journey through Cancer is self-published by author Stephen L. Starkman (2022) and available for purchase on his website.