Last month, my mother was admitted to the hospital for cancer surgery. I decided to document the hospitalization, from admission to returning home.
One of my inspirations was Days With My Father, Phillip Toledano’s brave visual account of his father’s last days. I wasn’t just interested in coming up with a series of melodramatic photos; I wanted an accurate record of the event for my family.
A Solemn Journey
So the morning of the surgery, I packed a camera in my bag, and we began a solemn drive to the hospital.
On the way there, I thought about taking my camera out and documenting the drive itself. But something told me not to; we continued on to the hospital.
When my mom was admitted and shown to her ward, I was tempted to take the camera out and document the scene. But again, I didn’t.
When a hospital worker came to help her onto the gurney and wheel her to the operating room, I knew that it would make for good photographs. But upon seeing my mom lying there with tears in her eyes, my heart tightened. All I could do was hold her hand and tell her that everything would be OK.
Pictures in My Mind
A few hours later, she returned unconscious after surgery. I sat beside her, waiting for the anesthetic to wear off.
During this time, as she drifted in and out of consciousness, I wanted so badly to take my camera out and take a few photos of her. But I knew that she would never want to see these pictures — and would probably ask me to delete them from my camera.
I saw other pictures as I looked around the ward. I framed the various images in my mind. I composed them and visualized how they would look.
But again, I never removed my camera from the bag. The pictures in my mind were ones I simply didn’t have the heart to take.
Before I left, I was able to take a few pictures. Seven, to be exact — with my mobile phone.
The pictures don’t show much, and are of inferior quality. But looking at them now, they bring everything back to me: the smell of the ward, the feel of the cushion of the chair, the sickening sight of tubes running into my mom’s arms and nose.
My visual record, as haphazard and incomplete as it was, still had power.
What My Heart Said
So, am I a bad photographer for not following through on my original plans? I asked a photojournalist friend, and he assured me I did the right thing.
I would like to be able to grit my teeth and document an emotional journey like Toledano does in Days With My Father. But it’s probably not something I can accomplish, at least at this stage in my life and career.
My heart told me “no,” and I had to listen to it.
Photo © Leonard Goh