Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What Makes You Click? Q & A with Photojournalist John Kaplan

By Al Diaz

On Valentine's Day 2005 my mother died of cancer, so when I received a DVD of the film Not as I Pictured, by John Kaplan, I set it aside. Not wanting to revisit those heart-wrenching moments, I procrastinated.

Three months later I read the enclosed note by the Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist John Kaplan. “If you have reservations about opening the enclosed DVD package, please know that viewers universally find the film to be upbeat and life affirming.”

Once read, I took a deep breath and took a journey as I watched a courageous Kaplan defeat an insidious Lymphoma ravaging his body.

Q. John, as a photojournalist you have photographed history unfold before your eyes. After being diagnosed with cancer what was your thought process that gave you the idea to turn the camera on yourself?

A. I was used to documenting life’s challenges, and even the worst that life could offer a human being. In my more than 25-year career, I had covered revolution in the Philippines, the worst tornadoes to hit the U.S. in a century, and many other devastating circumstances.

Journalists who cover such real life drama can fall into an easy trap of believing we are invincible, that the life challenges faced by our subjects will not happen to us. Of course that is not true, but even at age 48, I had never truly faced my own vulnerability.

Q. While shooting, did the project help you cope with the disease?

A. I had rarely been ill, so when a routine CT scan in 2008 revealed a kidney tumor and an eventual rare diagnosis of Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma growing inside me, picking up my cameras was the last thing on my mind. But, initially as a way to cope with my fear, I began photographing and shooting video of myself through the treatment process.

Having judged more than 200 competitions, including the Pulitzer, I know what a cliché many cancer stories can be. But, when you get cancer, you don’t feel like a cliché, you just pray you can beat it.

It has always been at my core to do my best to treat my subjects with dignity. So, that foundation was a true test—Would I be able to share the same intimate and emotional situations with others from the challenge of my life that I have always asked of my subjects?

Q. Now that you documented your own journey through cancer treatment, when on assignment, do you approach your subjects differently? 

A. I still recommend to my students that they avoid doing self-serving first person stories about themselves, but in trying to comprehend the shock of a cancer diagnosis, I broke my own rule. I needed that emotional crutch--the distraction of shooting pictures during the emotional roller coaster I was embarking on. 

I’m doing fine now, more than a year after my last treatment. I don’t think my approach to shooting situations has changed, but believe I am a more patient person now.

Q. The film is viewed across America on PBS. How has it been received?

A. The response has been incredible. We have reached more than 94 million American homes on PBS, and collaborated with the two largest organizations worldwide in cancer research, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and in advocacy, the American Cancer Society.

To date, we have given away 6,000 free copies of the film on DVD to anyone touched by cancer. That’s been an incredible part of my healing, too. The film is truly helping people.

To learn more, people can come over to our site:

Please also join us on Facebook where more than 200 viewers have shared feedback on the upbeat and life-affirming message of Not As I Pictured:

Q. Did you edit the project while going through treatment?

A. Yes, I edited along the way. It was a welcome distraction from the tough realities I faced at the time. One amazing outcome is the support we received from the music community.

During my treatment, R.E.M became a friend of the project and helped spread the word among leading musicians who donated music for the Not As I Pictured soundtrack, including Chris Martin of Coldplay, Michael Stipe, David Bowie, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Pantera, and the Cowboy Junkies.

The film has a surprise cameo at the end from a rock star, too. You need to watch the film for that.

Q. I could not always tell when you were shooting handheld, remote or using someone else. Can you describe your approach?

A. At the time, I needed to remember that the most important thing was to do what my doctors told me to do, and that the image making clearly had to take a back seat to my belief that I could beat cancer, and the treatment process.

So, shooting pictures and video was as non-technical as possible. Intuition just took over. I held my arm out most of the time, and also used a simple infrared remote with the camera on a tripod. Thank God for my return to health, and Thank God for autofocus, too!

Q. Did you reach the goal you set out to accomplish with your film?

A. During my treatment, we received so much unexpected help along the way, often from strangers. In sharing our family’s story, I’m determined to give some of that kindness back.

The film gives viewers that small extra nugget of courage that you can make it through the process and back to the joy of every day. One of my mantras to share is—most cancers today are not only treatable, they are beatable.

Our goals are ongoing as we are doing screenings accompanied by cancer coping forums across the U.S. and beginning now internationally, too. One next step is to have the film utilized in medical humanities education to help healthcare professionals learn to be more empathetic in their approach toward patients. That’s an important movement known as “Humanism in Medicine.”

We’ve just launched the touring Not As I Pictured photographic exhibition, too. It just opened last week in Wilmington, Delaware, and next tours to the University of Kentucky.

It’s a moving set of pictures and this is an exhibition that can really involve and motivate any local community. One in three American women will get cancer, and one in two men. Thus, cancer touches nearly every family in the nation, and the exhibition’s appeal is broad-based, too.

We’re looking for additional locations for the exhibition. Here’s more info about how to book the exhibition at our website:

Q What’s in your bag?

A. Besides an old granola bar, you mean?

I use the Canon 5D Mark II as my main body and the EF 16-35 f 2.8, and 70-100 f.2.8 zooms.

But I’m frequently going with lighter weight when possible and also love the EF 70-200 f4.0, and the EF 24-105 f 4.0 zooms. So, before heading out, depending on available light, I’ll choose which to take with me.

More often than not, my great love is still the 24mm look. That perspective is where my vision gravitates most often. So, I’m thinking of going back to a prime 24 lens rather than most often reaching for a wide zoom. I want to try going back to a fixed focal length for wide shooting for the discipline it can provide in carefully chosen composition.

I’d also like to share that Canon was also a great friend in donating the excellent ipf6300 printer I used for the Not As I Pictured touring photographic exhibition.