The Light Shining Through A Screen
Shahrzad Darafsheh found an outlet for her emotions through photography while she battled cancerBy AATIKA H JAIN
There is only a single page of text in the photobook of Iranian photographer Shahrzad Darafsheh. It talks about the transient nature of everything except death, the eternal truth. The photobook, Half-Light, is intriguing in its layout. It can be read from left to right as is the convention in the English-speaking sections of the world, as well as from right to left as is common in Farsi, the language spoken in her country, Iran. As you go through the photobook, you realize it can be read in multiple ways with different endings, aptly representing how life goes for a cancer patient. Between every two pages in the book is a translucent page that acts as a screen. So when you turn the page, you come across a hazy picture as if seeing it in half-light through a shroud. Only when you turn the screen do you see the full, clear image. When cancer touches a person, it turns every aspect of their life topsy-turvy. Darafsheh was a simple young woman of 32 in 2015 when she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a disorder of the reproductive system. She had dreams of having a family. But life had other plans for her. The endometriosis developed into cancer and she had to undergo a radical hysterectomy with a course of chemotherapy.
“Dealing with the paint itself—along with the feeling of growing something inside my body which was not a child, nor could it ever be—was a life-changing experience,” she says. In her times of struggle, she found solace in photography. “Most of my strength came from working on Half-Light. It kept me sane… the thought of change. Nature was always my greatest mentor.” It was January 2018 when Darafsheh learned about cancer when she visited her doctors with her mother. “The family worried a lot and all I wished was to lessen that pressure,” shares Darafsheh. “So I smiled when the surgeon said the word cancer! In just one second, I decided that is how it’s going to be for me. After several tests afterwards, I found out I had to take my uterus and both ovaries out. It was devastating.”
“I wasn’t thinking about what i want to do with those pictures; they were the result of my research of the body and mind. A journey into the unknown.”
However, she was not new to struggles. Being a female photographer in Iran came with its own difficulties. “Art history books are full of male artists. Women’s rights, censorship, and anxiety about everyday life are things that our life in Iran is tied to,” she says. But the cancer diagnosis was tougher than anything she had ever faced. “I experienced a version of loneliness different from what I’ve experienced before and it had something to do with that smile. I never shared my fears, worries, and tears with anyone till the end of chemotherapy,” says Darafsheh. “Sadly, there aren’t any cancer support groups in Iran, just a few charity NGOs where patients can find each other.” It was when she was diagnosed with endometriosis that she started on Half-Light. “I wasn’t thinking about what I want to do with those pictures; they were the result of my research of the body and mind. A journey into the unknown,” she says.
It was Jason Koxvold, founder genomic Books, who suggested compiling her work into a photobook in 2018; this happened when she had just had her second round of chemotherapy. “I was suspended in the dark and this idea brought me back to life. Half-Light is the child of cancer, the story of life and death,” says Darafsheh.
As a child, she grew up in a household fascinated with art. Her father was a carpet designer and photography enthusiast. “As a teenager, I spent my time looking at his old prints, she says. “My mother put me in summer art classes. I liked photography the most. The camera became my closest friend and looking through the viewfinder, the best way to see the world.” She went on to study photography at university.
Darafsheh has been trying to start working on two of her unfinished photo projects, which were stopped when she was diagnosed with cancer. Besides, she hopes to start a cancer support group for female patients. But first things first. “I’m getting to know my body and new feelings. I guess I’ve to make peace with all of these before opening a new door in other’s lives,” she shares. “Meanwhile Half-Light will find its way as it has a bigger voice now. It’s reached some cancer patients. I hope these images help someone the way they helped me.” To people battling cancer, she says, “Accept whatever comes to you with an open heart. Learn about your condition, pay attention to your body and you will find the reason for the illness; then you can change it to better days, a calmer mind and hopefully, to health.”.
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