Though the illness certainly disrupted his life, one thing didn’t change before, during, and after Wil Traub’s successful crusade against cancer of the blood—he never stopped taking pictures. Wil was working as a professional photographer at the time of his diagnosis, primarily doing commercial photography for architects. “When I became ill, I started losing strength and it became difficult to do my work. The cameras are heavy, the job is physical in nature, and you work very, very long hours,” he says. So Wil took a hiatus from his job—but not from his camera.
The cure for his blood cancer (also known as myelodysplastic syndrome) involved a bone marrow transplant. The treatment involved drugs that compromise the immune system so that his body would accept the transplant. Unfortunately, a compromised immune system also meant being susceptible to the many infections that friends, family, and strangers carry and pass to one another. So with the treatment came isolation.
“You have to check out for a whole year. Stick with your family if you have one, meet your friends outside when the weather is nice, and have them wear gloves and a mask to keep their germs contained when in an enclosed space,” Wil explains. Seemingly an optimist at heart, Wil says that, “in some respects, being isolated was really interesting. I had a film festival, ordering movies like crazy. I also started wandering around where I lived and photographed. I had all this time, I had to keep busy to keep my sanity.”
Somewhere between the clicks of the shutter of his easy-to-carry 35 millimeter camera came the idea for a series titled “Recovery” that would document his experience as a blood cancer survivor. “The series began when I went into the hospital, photographing things in my new world. The transplanted world,” he says.
He credits being able to take photographs throughout his illness and recovery with healing him in a certain way. “Having my camera with me helped me feel grounded. It put me in a familiar situation, even when I was a cancer patient, which wasn’t familiar to me….It made the air that I was breathing in that situation tolerable to me. I could photograph it. I could swing it into something visual and understandable,” he says.
Now, a little more than six years after his bone marrow transplant, he is as healthy as could be hoped for. And his photography work is still healing him—because it is helping others going through serious illnesses. The Recovery series has been shown at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, MA, and Wil has published a catalogue of the photographs accompanied by his poetry and prose and an essay by Karen E. Haas, The Lane Collection Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“This is by far my most personal work. People going through a transplant or any kind of serious illness would relate to it. I think [the writing and photographs] have helped some people. It’s always nice to have someone grab your hand when you’re down and have someone help you, and this has done that for some people.” A portion of the proceeds of catalog and photograph sales will be donated to the Be the Match Foundation in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
And though Wil has no intention of putting down his camera, he also has decided to keep with the writing—something he hasn’t done seriously in a long time. Currently he’s working on a story that will include both photos and text. The photographs illustrate the scenes and provide clues to the mystery, and the text ties it all together.
Now, Wil thinks of cancer as, “Life throwing you a weird pitch and you figuring out how to hit it.” It seems that he decided to use his camera and a pen to go to bat, and that these tools served him very well indeed.
To email Wil Traub or get more information on Recovery, click here.
by Christine Junge