Featured Blog by Bay Area Artist: Kathleen Sheffer
I knew I was starting to heal when I began taking photos in my hospital room. My camera had laid neglected in my bag since I was wheeled into the operating room. For days I couldn’t eat, walk to the restroom, or say with certainty what day it was, though the hospital psychiatrist asked me regularly.
My career had to be put on hold for nearly a year, but my passion for photography was impeded by a cocktail of immunosuppressant, antibiotic, and pain medications for less than two weeks. Photography became a method to connect with the outside world. I shared photos along with written updates to keep in touch with friends and family while isolated due to my highly compromised immune system. Documenting my experience helped me process my new health status. On July 1, 2016, at the age of 23, I acquired the following diagnosis: status post en bloc heart-lung transplant. Whatever that means.
But my recovery was not wholly miraculous and wonderful. I was in so much pain. Unsure I would ever be able to return to event photography, I mourned the life I knew before my steep decline. I battled brain fog daily and my photos were some of the only proof I had that not all my memories were fabricated, and that my life was steadily improving.
Reading memoirs by other transplant patients, I learned I was not an outlier. I’ll Take Tomorrow by Mary Gohlke and Sick Girl by Amy Silverstein normalized my mental state. Psychosis and anxiety were part of the process. I found meaning in doing the same for other patients, publishing brutally honest posts to my blog. My writing drew gratitude and affirmation from parents who, like mine, watched in agony as their children endured mental and physical pain even after having life restored by a selfless donor.
My photography would be honest, too, I decided. I wanted to portray the challenges along with the triumphs. As my website’s “About” section reads, “Life is not all sunshine and rainbows (that’s why I do outdoor sessions at specific times of day!), but all of it is beautiful and worth capturing.”
Looking back now, my disability paved the way for my dedication to photography. My original diagnosis, pulmonary hypertension, made me short of breath and fatigued. As a child, I took art classes while my peers played sports. Tethered to an oxygen concentrator, I spent long periods of time indoors piecing together jigsaw puzzles and filling sketchbooks.
When I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2015 with an unpredictable illness, I built a freelance photography business from scratch. Understanding that my frequent sudden hospitalizations and chronic fatigue were untenable in a fast-paced professional environment, I sought the flexibility of gig-based work. I already spent my free time taking photos, and had started charging for graduation portrait sessions.
Though I always knew I would eventually need a heart-lung transplant, and that I would have to take off from school and/or work while I recovered, I didn’t know when I started my business in 2015 just how soon that would be. Less than a year into my professional career, I was fortunate to have clients who not only accepted my abrupt absence, but supported it and re-hired me when I had healed. My gratitude extends to them and to the other photographers who filled in for me while I was sick, and then referred jobs to me when I started working again.
Since my transplant, I’ve returned to event photography, developing strategies to avoid illness in high-risk environments. My camera bag holds antibacterial wipes, protein bars, antifungal solution, and pill cases, along with my camera bodies, lenses, and speedlights.
In November I recruited a group of transplant recipients to model for me as part of a project about the stories scars tell. We all shared a similar attitude about the topless shoot: “Everyone’s seen everything.” Our bodies have been exposed countless times to physicians. Consenting to exposure for artistic purposes instead of medical was new and empowering.
Born with transposition of the great arteries, I underwent open heart surgery when I was a week old, and I’ve had a scar down my chest ever since. When I see a chest without a scar, I subconsciously think something is missing. Photographing these women who had chests like mine was at once totally ordinary and totally extraordinary.
It’s stunning that organ transplantation is possible and successful. Our bodies and minds undergo excruciating trauma, but somehow we heal. The scars that remain show both the trauma, and the healing. The scars are honest. These photos show women who are resilient, unapologetic, but also vulnerable.
Photography began as a career choice influenced by my disability. After my transplant, it was critical to my recovery. A form of storytelling, visual documentation helps me engage with others, build community, and better understand and express myself. It appears (at least from what I’ve compiled here) that I’m creating a body of work informed by my transplant. I can’t say for certain where it’s headed, but it feels right, and I know photography will continue to impact the way I view myself and my disability.