There are some people whose personality and spirit can fill up an entire room. Brooke Smith is one of those people.
I met Brooke (at right) for the first time a year and a half ago when she joined the Star City Roller Girls. I had been playing roller derby for six months by then; she was a natural from day one. Skating with her has always been an adventure; she is the only player I’ve ever seen put a skater from an opposing team in a headlock during the middle of a game. Brooke may not be the cleanest player (headlocks are illegal in derby), but she is definitely a crowd favorite.
We were sitting on the floor of a studio during a team photo shoot when Brooke told me she had found a lump in her back and another in her breast. She’d had some tests done, but the doctors didn’t know what was wrong.
A few weeks passed, and I didn’t hear much about Brooke’s test results. I think when it comes to family and friends, we all want to believe that everything is fine, especially with someone so young and vibrant.
I still remember that night – Sept. 3, 2008 – when Brooke stopped by practice to see all of us. I was sitting on the sidelines with two other teammates when I asked her how she was doing. She said she had gotten her test results back.
“What tests?” I thought. I had completely pushed our conversation from a few weeks before out of my mind.
“I have cancer,” she said.
I froze. I sat down next to her as close as I could, put my hand on her knee, and listened to her explain to the three of us what she had just found out that day.
As a photojournalist, I have covered several stories about cancer. It seems to be something that touches just about everyone in some way. So when Brooke told me about her diagnosis, I didn’t think of it as a story I might cover for the newspaper. I was thinking about Brooke — about how 20 girls skating around in front of me had no clue what they were about to find out. Telling her story was the farthest thing from my mind.
Shortly after that day, I read a blog entry Brooke had written. I was amazed by her honesty with herself – and with anyone else who wanted to read it. At 26, I often wonder where my life is going, what I am doing. Reading her post inspired me to live today. To live right now in this moment.
That’s when I thought, “This is a story, a story that can help people think about their own lives more deeply.”
Ultimately, I needed to make sure I would be telling this story for the right reasons. I needed to make sure I wasn’t doing it because Brooke is my friend. I needed to make sure I would be doing it because I believe this story has the power to make people stop for a moment and reflect on their own lives.
Typically, journalists tend to avoid telling stories about people they know on a personal level. It’s complicated: Our job is to tell people’s stories – not become part of the story. And when we have closer, personal relationships with the people whose stories we’re telling, sometimes our stories intertwine. And sometimes it becomes impossible not to become part of their story. That’s why we explain our relationships to our readers.
As I photographed this story, I felt that working with a reporter who hadn’t known Brooke before helped maintain a check on my own relationship with her. Everything that I knew about Brooke and everything she told me, reporter Rob Johnson also learned.
Journalists debate how close we should get to the people whose stories we tell. But personally, I feel that the better I understand people and the more they understand me, the more equipped I am to tell the truest story.
Through previous experience and conversations with other photojournalists, I have found that sometimes our cameras can act as a shield, creating a barrier between our emotions and what is happening around us.
This wouldn’t be the first time I had photographed someone close to me during an operation. I didn’t think about how I would feel. When I entered the operating room, I talked with the doctor a bit and starting taking photographs. Even though I know Brooke, somehow, I was just doing my job at that point. The light, the colors, the angles. While I was shooting, while I was keeping my brain occupied, I was fine.
Then, during a transition period in the operation, I saw Brooke’s face. For a brief second I made eye contact with her surgeon. It hit me: I was in an operating room. It was my friend underneath that sheet.
I remember seeing her look at me as they wheeled her out of the operating room after the surgery. It was comforting to know that she was all right. But it was complicated. Even though those thoughts went through my head, I had to cut them off. I still had a story to tell.
– Jeanna Duerscherl | The Roanoke Times