Award-winning Eastbourne photographer documents her own cancer journey

Reality Trauma - Having chemo (self portrait) © Carly ClarkeReality Trauma - Having chemo (self portrait) © Carly Clarke
Reality Trauma - Having chemo (self portrait) © Carly Clarke
Eastbourne documentary photographer Carly Clarke is celebrating a major award after chronicling her own and her brother’s cancer.

Carly received the Vic Odden Award from the Royal Photographic Society for her cancer series Reality Trauma as well as another documentary project about her young brother going through the same type of cancer seven years later. The award was also for work she did in India about elder abuse and abandonment and other projects in the last ten years. The two cancer projects have been widely published

“I am so thrilled because I have worked hard on my long-term documentary projects over the years and it's so nice to get recognition for that,” Carly said. “It lets me know that the work I am doing is worthwhile and I can feel confident to keep doing what I'm doing with my work.

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“My love of photography started at Lewes College. I studied A-level photography and I spent a lot of time in the darkroom, always staying late and enjoying processing my own black and white films and seeing the magic of printing them. My career really started while I was studying BA photography at Middlesex University; I photographed Harvey's Brewery in Lewes, which became one of my first major projects. Then I went out to Vancouver in Canada to study and document the effects of addiction and homelessness of the denizens of the downtown East Side, which I had seen many years before when I lived there. I was able to empathise with many of the people I spoke to at the time because I was also very ill myself, I just didn’t know I had cancer, but I knew there was something wrong with me, the symptoms were endless. I had spent months prior to going to Canada trying to get a diagnosis for my severe weight loss, severe cough, back pains but nothing had yet been found.

“On my return to the UK, I was coughing up blood and it was then that my doctor said that I needed to go straight to A&E. I’d also not had an appetite for months, barely eating one meal a day. I stayed in hospital for several weeks under investigation. They thought I might have a tropical disease from a trip to India I had made a few years earlier or even TB, because my cough was so severe. I had to be in isolation in a ward, wear a mask 24/7 and if I had any visitors, they had to wear masks and protective clothing. It was a terrifying time. A few months later I was diagnosed with stage 4b Hodgkin Lymphoma, a blood cancer, with a large tumour in my lung. I was only 26 years old. It was shortly after this that I decided to document myself going through chemotherapy treatment. I called the project Reality Trauma. I tried to document it as much as I could, mostly through self-portraits and often because I had wires attached to my PICC line and I was attached to a machine during chemo, it meant I couldn’t always take the photos myself. Sometimes I would set up a scene or put the camera on a ledge or a tripod and then ask a nurse to press the shutter for me or a family member or a friend.

“The camera I use is a Pentax 6x7 which is a medium format film camera. It’s quite large and intimidating so I would set it up for them and they just had to press the shutter button, which goes off like a gun. It wasn’t the most subtle camera to use in a hospital setting and I wasn’t allowed to take photos of other people in the wards or have them in the background of shots without permission. Therefore, it made sense to shoot self-portraits and document the changes in my body and appearance over time as the effects of chemotherapy took their toll. I got so ill at times with all the different drugs because I was quite frail. I almost lost all of my hair and had some very difficult times where I couldn’t quite face myself and I lost interest in photography altogether. I wasn’t sure if I would even live to see the end project so I wondered what it was all for. There is one particular photo that isn’t technically so good but when I look at it, it takes me back to that moment and brings back those feelings of hopelessness about who I was and what I was doing. I couldn’t face the camera, the fact that I had changed so much. Chemotherapy strips you completely bare of what you think you are as a human being but it also helps you to realise the enormous strength that you have inside because you are effectively fighting for your life with your mind and your entire body.

“Many years after the end of my treatment, my 16-year-old brother got a cancer diagnosis and, to everyone’s disbelief, it was Hodgkin Lymphoma. Joe agreed to me documenting his treatment but it was very challenging and difficult. I had no control over the outcome of his treatment and in some ways, it felt strange to take photos but I was so familiar with the process that it felt right. It was very difficult to see Joe going through what I had endured but at an even younger age. He had trial chemotherapy, then regular chemo and then intense chemo as he relapsed very early on. It meant that things got a bit strained between us as he found it difficult having a camera around, particularly towards the end when he was going through a very hard time and facing the unknown. We agreed to take a break on the project and to just focus on his treatment. I spent long periods with him in hospital and so did other family members. After a successful autologous stem cell transplant and almost two years of treatment he was finally cancer free. Shortly after this a journalist found me on social media through an article about my work in the British Journal of Photography and he asked to interview me about my projects In the Blood and Reality Trauma. The article he wrote was published on the BBC website in 2019 and was seen worldwide. This led to commissions and podcasts as well as a local television news item.

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“I am currently focusing on a documentary project about my home town of Eastbourne. It started on the morning on 22nd November 2019, when I smelt smoke in my apartment near the seafront. When I looked out of the window, I saw that ash was falling from the sky and my road had been cordoned off by the police. Shortly afterwards my building had to be evacuated and I took only my Pentax 6x7 with me. It turned out that The Claremont Hotel, a local landmark just opposite the entrance of the pier, had caught fire and was burning to the ground. Seeing somewhere I have known all my life get destroyed in this way made me realise that I had to document the town as it is now before it too starts to disappear or change beyond recognition. For a long time, I tried to get out of Eastbourne but when I got cancer I was forced to come back here for treatment. I have had a complicated relationship with this town at times, but since my illness I view it in a different way and I have come to love it. This project is about many aspects of the town, first and foremost what it means to me, but also its interesting and wonderful people.”