An exhibit of 29 black and white photographs is encouraging an atmosphere of communication and education at The Gathering Place, a community-based cancer support center in Beachwood, Ohio. Opened on June 4, the day after National Cancer Survivors Day, and ending on August 31, Cancer Speaks features the intimate portraits of more than two dozen local residents touched by cancer. Combined to show the many faces and emotions triggered by the disease, the portraits feature those from all backgrounds, ages, and races, with expressions and quotes offering a personal glimpse into the life of those with cancer.

Local photographer Marc Golub conceived of the project and donated his time and materials after being inspired by The Gathering Place's work. He did a similar project for the nonprofit's annual Fun Brochure, which ran photographs alongside individuals' quotes about The Gathering Place. Golub wanted to take the concept further and use closer, more intimate shots with quotes about participants' type of diagnoses and their cancer journeys.

Before the photo shoot, staff at The Gathering Place, along with Golub, interviewed the portrait subjects at length to gain a personal glimpse into their cancer journeys and to observe their body language as they talked about the disease. “From their body language, from their movements, from their expressions, I would be able to determine how I wanted to photograph them,” Golub says.

Some participants spoke about anger, while others said cancer reminded them of life's joys and blessings. Others spoke about dying or focused instead on fighting and faith. “There are a few quotes in there that even surprised me. There was one woman who told me that her life is better now that she has been diagnosed with cancer. And if she can say her life is better, then that's a wonderful thing,” Golub says. Other portraits share different views, from a flat-out “Cancer sucks” to “I'm not ready to die.”

The unretouched photographs reflect those varying emotions. Each photograph is paired with a statement drawn from each interviewee, providing a view into the cancer journey not only through these simple written words, but through the eyes and expressions of each person. While some participants continue to fight their cancer, one has since lost her battle.

“I felt strongly that the imagery needed text because people don't speak about serious illness—not outwardly and openly enough,” Golub says. “This is an effort to get people to talk more about what they're feeling. It's actually therapeutic for someone going through an illness to sit down and talk about what they're really feeling and what they're going through.”

“This exhibit holds a powerful message, no matter what the vantage point,” says Kristina Austin, director of community outreach and marketing at The Gathering Place, who sat in on the interviews and photo shoots. “It really educates audiences that cancer is not one-dimensional and offers them a chance to walk the journey through someone else's shoes. The emotions of cancer are not always easily conveyed, making these photos and this personal glimpse a unique and valuable experience.”

With donated art and creations from art therapy workshops hanging throughout the facility, an art exhibit falls right in line with the environment at The Gathering Place. “Our mission is to support, educate, and empower individuals and families touched by cancer,” Austin says. Through these portraits and words, The Gathering Place can create a safer place for dialogue and help people learn what others' experiences have been like.

“We want to make this a comfortable and inviting environment,” says Austin. “Art makes this a beautiful, homelike space where people can be engaged and feel safe.

“I think some individuals see a quote and say, ‘Wow, that's exactly how I feel.’ It helps to feel that you're not alone. And they recognize that ‘I'm glad I came here’ or ‘I may be able to learn from someone else.’ They also realize that when they are ready they may have something to give to someone else, too.” Austin says this kind of exhibit shows people that it is OK to express their difficulties in dealing with a disease and creates a comfortable environment to do just that.

Following its own showing, The Gathering Place hopes to lend the exhibit to cancer support centers, hospitals, galleries, and other venues nationwide. HD