His hair has grown back now, but his hands still shake as he sets up equipment for his presentation. His body still is frail from the torturous poking and poisoning done in the name of “treatment,” but that doesn’t stop him from showcasing his work to students and organizations across the country.
He has a message.
Pulitzer-prize winning international photographer John Kaplan will make the first campus showing of his documentary, “Not As I Pictured,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Room 134 of the Communication Arts and Sciences Building.
A successful photographer with a young family, Kaplan’s life was going fine. In April 2008, after strange results from a routine hernia, Kaplan was hit with a bombshell. He had a dangerous form of cancer called lymphoma.
“I’ve been healthy my whole life — the type of guy who never misses a day of work,” he said. “So it was quite a blindside.”
He thought about his children, Carina and Max, wondering if he would be around to see them grow up.
Desperate to fight, he threw himself into research. He began treatment and underwent surgery.
After surgery, examining his incisions and strange hair patterns in the bathroom mirror, he took a photograph on a whim.
That photograph was the beginning of a 54-minute documentary about Kaplan’s battle with cancer. Originally just for himself as catharsis and a way to handle fear, he soon realized his journey could help other people.
“Partway into the process, I believed if I would be able to go into remission, this could help other people,” Kaplan said.
“So many cancers these days are falling into the category of chronic illness rather than instant death sentence, and people need to know that. … It really lets people not only empathize, but give people the confidence (of) you can fight it.”
Geri Zeldes, a professor of journalism at MSU, saw a portion of Kaplan’s documentary online after he won a media arts competition.
After learning about his story and experience as an international photographer, she contacted him to see if he would be interested in speaking to students.
“He put together a short form of his long-form documentary and I was really moved by it,” Zeldes said. “It’s a good message. One in four people experience (cancer), so it’s a reminder that we are human.”
In order to offer his message to as many people as possible, Kaplan is working with a national cancer organization to distribute free copies of his documentary to cancer patients, family members and caregivers.
The program is scheduled to launch in September, and Kaplan is hoping to reach an audience of 30,000 or more people.
“I think the film helps people look at what they value in their lives,” he said.
In addition to Kaplan, the film features two brothers from Detroit, Todd and Ryan Koehn. When Ryan Koehn underwent surgery for brain cancer at 28 years old, he clung to one of Kaplan’s photographs for the will to keep fighting. The picture was of one of Ryan Koehn’s heroes, Phil Anselmo, the lead singer for the heavy metal band Pantera. The tattoo on the side of Anselmo’s head, reading “Strength,” was in the same location as Ryan Koehn’s scar from surgery.
“(Kaplan’s picture) was right on the wall of my living room above the picture of I took of myself,” Ryan Koehn said. “I saw it everyday on the way in and way out of my house … It matched up so well with the picture of myself that it was perfect. It was the perfect match. It helped me get back on my feet quicker.”
Both Kaplan and Ryan Koehn now are in remission and are moving forward with their lives.
Ryan Koehn is a firefighter who recently saved a 5-year-old’s life in a house fire. Kaplan is a professor at the University of Florida. But both are intent on spreading their message and reaching out to people whose lives are devastated by cancer.
“As my doctor says, with some cancers you never know,” Kaplan said. “I don’t spend time dwelling on that. (I’m) just glad I’m here to be there for my family, there for my students and know this film project will help other people.”
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