On Mothers, Cancer, and Fighting for Your Photography

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The doctor looked straight to my mother’s eyes. He wanted to break eye contact but he couldn’t. There was bad news to deliver first.

“I’m so sorry… it’s cancer,” he mumbled. “We found it in your brain and in your lungs.”

After a long silence he gathered the courage to add a blow worse than the first: “After treatment, you have, at best 6 months to live”.

6 months to live. There’s not much in the world that can prepare you for your own death sentence. The emotions and questions hit you like a whirlwind. Why? How? Pain, anger, fear. These thoughts and feelings race trough my mother’s head, but then she broke a cold sweat, she reminded herself… what about her 10-year-old son? What would become of him without her?

The doctor was apologetic: evidently he believed his prognostic was as good as prophecy, she would be gone by the end of the year. When he finally looked at her again, he’s probably seen this type of sunken face hundreds of times, but what he didn’t expect was a little fire burning in the dark of her eyes deep within her soul. My mother was a fighter.

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And fought, she did. She made the choice to go trough chemotherapy. She lost her hair and had parts of her lungs and brain removed. She became weaker and weaker. But that did not deter her one bit to fight all the way through to win.

And win she did. My mother ended up beating cancer. Her routine visits to the hospital became an occasion for everyone to take a look at the “miracle lady” walking down the aisle of the hospital. Everyone wanted to see with their own eyes a lady that was given 6 months to live and yet was still alive. And better yet, she was walking instead of in a wheelchair.

You see, what the doctors and nurses didn’t know was that my mother, I am humble to say, had a burning desire to see her son old enough to get married and had faith that God would honor her desire. And that, He did. I got married in 2009.

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Today, as a father, I can now understand her resolve, that burning desire to do all that it takes so that your children are successful in life. Your children are a part of you, and you will do anything for them.

Here me out now: I think that in a small sense, your images also are like your children. Of course they are not the same thing, but if you think about it, they are also a part of you, because you made them with your soul. For sure, not every photographer gives a rip about what they do, but if you remotely care about what you are doing as a photographer, you know what I mean.

Just like children too, if you don’t fight for them to see them succeed, they will go nowhere. Your dreams of being a photographer are worthless if you are not willing to fight for them. I don’t know if you have realized it, but it’s hard being a photographer nowadays, since it’s one of those industries that seems like it’s all fun and all play.

Every day new photographers pop out of nowhere, making it increasingly harder to get noticed. If you leave your images defenseless and let them be, nothing will ever happen, even more today then yesterday.

To add insult to injury, photography is a daily fight, and sometimes I simply feel like hanging the camera for good and just change jobs. But then I think of my mother, she went trough hell and back to see her dream come true. How could I ever tell her, with tail between my legs, that I have given up?

I fought to be born, I fought with my fists to get that bully off my back, and I now I fight to make it as a photographer. What else can I do? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I failed someone who’s fought so hard for me.

Fighting means cold calling potential clients even if you are terrified they will turn you down.
It means to keep on shooting even if you want to give up.
It means finally displaying your work on your site even if you feel scared of the response.
It means developing your own style when everyone else seems disinterested.
It means doing the legwork so that you can make a few print sales, even if you know you will be turned down most of the time.
It means asking friends and friends of their friends if someone needs images done…

So on and so forth. You press on, not because you somehow believe you are that great — there are enough self-absorbed photographers in the world — but because you made your images from the depths of your soul and you know there’s something special to them if someone would take their time to look at them.

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But let me tell you, it’s not always great. I remember when I started, I had a wife and a newborn. I knocked on every door I could for a job as a photographer. I even went so far as to design a whole 20-page report on how much I could help this local photography company. It got so bad, my wife told me she was ashamed for me… she saw me go up bright and sunny ready to go out there and get a job, only to see the sadness in my face when I came back. She could not bear to see how much rejection I went through.

Yet I continued, not because I particularly liked being rejected (who does?), but because I had this overwhelming sense that the universe had roadblocks built-in, just to weed out those who didn’t want it badly enough. And I did want it bad enough. Why? because with each and every successful image I made I felt like this is what I was born to do.

I never got any of those jobs by the way, but I am grateful. Because of all the rejection, I became a photographer without their help, and ended up in some of the world’s biggest photography publications and heck, I even created my own photography magazine.

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My mother is one of my heroes, she gave me that fighting spirit. I remember when I was about 10 years old. I remember my dad shouting at me to close my eyes before entering the hospital room. Back then, like a perfect little 10-year-old, if you told me not to do it, you told me to do it. But for some reason I did close my eyes. I entered the room, gave her a teddy bear I brought with my own pocket money and went out of the room. She was bald and had a huge scar over her head. It must have been a knife to her heart, knowing that she would frighten her own child.

She taught me that even when times are tough, it is time to be tough. I don’t know if I will ever have to face something as hard as cancer, but if it comes my way, I have her fighting spirit. I keep this in my heart of hearts when thinking about my kids, and also my images when things get so hard I want to give up. And I hope you do too.

The world is waiting to see your images, fight for them. Be yourself, stay focused, and keep on shooting.

About the author: Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese street photographer. He is the editor in chief of Inspired Eye Street Photography Magazine. He also teaches a photography method based on the eye, heart and the mind. You can also connect with him through Twitter.