Sharing has seemingly become the cultural norm with millions offering glimpses into their daily lives through social media platforms around the globe. Yet rarely are the most personal stories, the ones that explore life’s challenges, shared with others so openly. Nancy Borowick has done just this; shedding light on human vulnerability through her documentary photography.
The American, Guam-based freelance photographer started out working at Glamour Magazine shortly after obtaining a degree in Anthropology and Photography. Just eight months later, at the age of 23, she moved to Ghana to teach photography. After she returned to the U.S. she raised over $10,000 to give back to the schools in which she had taught. She has since spent the last decade committing her career to telling stories about illness and human relationships, winning prestigious awards from National Geographic and the World Press.
Despite finding early editorial and non-profit photography success, Borowick’s most profound achievement has been telling her own story. With Cancer Family, Borowick turned her photographic practice inward to document her parent’s parallel treatments of cancer. Her father, Howie died from pancreatic cancer at the end of 2013 and her mother Laurel, after a 17-year battle with breast cancer, followed almost exactly a year later.
Borowick’s response to this difficult time? To use her camera as therapeutic tool. From hospital visits and gravestone selection to family vacations and birthdays, Borowick documented all sides of her family’s life; both the funny moments and the heartbreaking ones. As a result, the photographs that make up Cancer Family tell a story more about her love and perseverance than illness and death.
Borowick’s unique gift for telling a layered story visually, particularly such a personal one, have not gone unnoticed. In 2015, former U.S. President Bill Clinton personally wrote Borowick offering his condolences and commending her work on Cancer Family. The project has had four features in The New York Times, been shown in countless publications such as the National Geographic and Glamour, and exhibited in over 100 locations around the world.
In 2016, Borowick raised over $60,000 to fund The Family Imprint, a book based on the Cancer Family project that includes text, vintage photographs, and even physical greeting cards sent between her parents. This year Borowick has been busy touring the book and exhibiting the project in the U.S., France, Switzerland, Singapore, Germany, Spain and Italy. When she’s not travelling the world, she is back home photographing her daily life in Guam for The New York Times and other local publications.
Not only is Borowick highly-esteemed for her skills as a compassionate visual storyteller, she is commended for her vulnerability. By using her camera to explore life’s overlooked challenges, Borowick’s photography cultivates the potential for connection and healing. We caught up with this inspirational powerhouse to find out what motivates her as both an artist and human being as well as more about her life in Guam.
How did you first get into photography?
I started photography when I was a freshman in high school. Back then, and before digital, I would load a roll of film into my camera, wander the campus, photograph my friends and then spend hours in the darkroom printing the images, utilizing at least four enlargers at a time. Back then I think it became very clear to me that the way I really understood the world, and the people around me, was through my camera. Ok, so maybe I was a bit nosy and lacked a certain sense of boundaries, but I think these qualities lend themselves to the kind of work one does as a photographer today, especially when photographing people.
Why did you decide to pick up and move to Ghana in the early days of your career?
After college, I was lucky enough to snag an eight-month internship in the photo department at Glamour Magazine. I learned a lot about the photo business from the editors point of view and I am grateful for that experience. After my internship ended, I realized that while I enjoyed the work I had been doing, I was eager to get back to shooting rather than living vicariously through the photography and photographers I worked with at the magazine. I also realized that I wanted to find a way to use photography in a more meaningful and impactful way. I learned about an opportunity to teach photography in Ghana so I jumped at the chance.
Through your work, you’ve proven that artists can utilize their talents to increase awareness and spark conversation. Was there a particular moment you realized the potential of photography to cultivate change?
During my first trip to Ghana, I witnessed firsthand the challenges so many face when it comes to accessing clean water. I always knew that this reality existed for many around the world, but it wasn’t until I was living in a place where the kids would walk for miles each day to collect potable water that it really hit me; of how lucky I truly was.
Clean water is a human right and watching my students spend hours each day fetching it when they could have been doing their schoolwork, or playing, upset me. When I left my school that summer, I asked my hosts how I could repay them for the tremendous generosity, hospitality and love they showed me. Their request: a well.
I returned to New York City where I soon started the Ghana On Tap project, determined to raise money to build a borehole well at the school. I was 23 years old, a bit idealistic and naïve, with mission on my mind and heart. I had seen this done before and thought that if I could teach people about this issue through my photography, maybe I could bring actual change to this village. I set up simple exhibitions of my images, hosted small events at bars, and talked to everyone who would listen. I had never built a well before, or produced my own exhibition, but over the course of a year with the help of family, friends and strangers I was able to raise over $11,000 for the well through sales of my photographs and general donations. Within two years, the well was built and water was flowing beautifully. I saw first-hand how my photographs, and their stories, could make real human impact and knew that there was no turning back. I had a purpose now, greater than myself, and I wanted to continue to use photography as a tool to teach and raise awareness and bring about change.
Your work tends to explore illness and human relationships, why are you drawn to this subject matter?
I have always been drawn to the intricacies of human relationships. Illness, within this landscape, came into focus organically when I found myself caring for, and subsequently documenting, my parents, who were in treatment for cancer at the same time. As a photographer, I live most of my life behind a camera, so it was second nature for me and I found myself continuing to photograph my life, and my parents, during this complicated time. As a society, we shy away from conversations around illness and death but by facing the situation head-on, as we did in my family, and in my photography, we truly learned about the value of life and what really mattered.
Why did you decide to share your vulnerable family story with the world? Did you anticipate such a huge response?
I never thought I would share the images, or our story, with the world. This was my personal journal and my way of processing what was happening. Photography gave me a familiar context through which I could understand what I was going through as it was language I already spoke fluently. When I was finally encouraged to share the images, I could have never imaged the response. I have received thousands of messages from people around the world, thanking my family for their vulnerability but also expressing a deep sense of gratitude for helping them better understand and cope with what they went through, or are presently going through. This was also a challenge for me because I grieved with every email that came in, but even then, I felt a sense of community knowing I was not alone. This was my personal story but the experience was universally human.
The Family Imprint reads like a heart-felt love story rather than a story of loss and tragedy. What inspires you to see the silver lining in difficult situations?
My dad always reminded us that we are not promised anything, and each day is a gift. He had lost both of his parents to cancer when he was just a child. He understood the fragility of life more than most and instead of hiding away in fear and sadness, he faced life head on and tried to make the most of the time he had left. My mother, also having lost her father at a young age, understood this perspective as well; and therefore, together, they taught us, their children, truly how to live and appreciate life.
They always found the silver-lining, even in death, and we live by their example. This was the hand they were dealt and they knew there was an end in sight but having this awareness of time was, in fact, a gift, as it forced us to be present and engaged. I have few regrets from this extremely special time in our lives and I have others to thank for that, who advised me along the way and shared their regrets with me. I had 28 years with my dad, and 29 with my mom, and I know some people don’t get a fraction of that, so I feel lucky.
What prompted you to relocate halfway across the Pacific Ocean to the island of Guam?
The long and short of it is that after my parents passed away, my husband Kyle and I took a step back and looked at our lives. We now understood how unpredictable life really is and decided that we needed to change things up, take some chances, and try something new. Instead of moving abroad, we decided to look some place a bit more local… 8,000 miles away local. Kyle is an attorney and through an interesting series of events found a job opportunity on the Pacific island of Guam in mid-2016 and we thought, why not? What did we have to lose?
Is there an underrated, must-have dish or must-see destination in Guam that you would recommend?
Guam has a lot of natural beauty and often visitors only stay in the touristy areas. One of the most beautiful places I’ve been to on the island is the Marbo cave. It is off-the-beaten path and hard to find, but worth the hunt!
What is the one thing you wish you had known when you started your photo career?
I wish I had been more organized, from the beginning, archiving my images and creating good habits and practices as a photographer because I look back now and waste too much time trying to find images. I also wish I kept better track of the contacts I had made and how I came to know them. This industry is very fluid and people move around so it is good to keep an organized rolodex.
What do you hope people will take away from your photographic work?
I hope when people see my work, especially my story about my family, that they feel a sense of compassion and inspiration when looking at their own lives. I hope in some way my work teaches others, and opens their eyes up to different customs and ways of life, and encourages them to ask questions and engage.