Photographer Nancy Borowick's book chronicling her parents' final days is her 'love letter' to them
By Alice Short
May 18, 2017 | 11:45 AM
The image on the cover of photographer Nancy Borowick's new book — a detail from a needlepoint depicting a wedding — is disarming. The stitching, the happiness of the occasion (dated "September 3, 1979") and the book's title — "The Family Imprint" — suggest that Borowick has assembled some sort of scrapbook.
And she has — although the subtitle, "A Daughter's Portrait of Love and Loss," is an indication of a narrative marked by grief as well as joy.
Within a 14-month period of time, Borowick, 31, got married and then buried both her parents. Her father died from pancreatic cancer toward the end of 2013; her mother, suffering from a third instance of breast cancer, died a year later. "Imprint" chronicles their love and dedication — and their determination to make their final days something more than a surrender.
Borowick — a Guam-based freelance photographer whose work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, Time magazine, National Geographic’s Proof and the Washington Post — has filled her beautifully designed book with images of family dinners, hospital stays, weddings and funerals. (Her camera, she writes, became a "therapeutic tool.") In one shot, her parents sit side by side as they receive chemotherapy treatments; in another, they hold hands, their matching hospital ID bands in the foreground.
Borowick's photos are interspersed with vintage family photos; quotes from her parents, Howard and Laurel Borowick; and reproductions of greeting cards, to-do lists and other "found family objects" — like the needlepoint wedding, an artwork created by her father.
"Imprint," Borowick writes, is "my love letter to my parents." Her story is both singular and universal.
Q: You've won a number of awards and prizes, and your work has been exhibited around the world. When did you become aware of your interest in photography?
A: I grew up about 45 minutes north of New York City, in a small town of Chappaqua. We were put on the map when the Clintons took up residence a few years back.
Even before I started taking pictures, I think I was going through the motions of being a storyteller. I was always interested in other people's stories and wanted to share them. My parents did not tell me not to talk to strangers ... so I always talked to strangers.
I picked up the camera when I was a freshman in high school. I was 14. My sister had taken photography in high school and loved it, and I wanted to do whatever my sister did. I fell in love with it.
Borowick has a degree in photography and anthropology from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. After she graduated, she interned at Glamour magazine; eight months later, she "did a 180" and moved to rural Ghana to teach photography.
Q: How did you end up in Ghana?
A: A friend had just come back volunteering in Ghana, and he told me about a school where he spent a few weeks. It had a bare-bones program for foreigners who wanted to teach. I was 23 and had no job and was looking for something meaningful.
I was a bit naive, but I survived and I learned. And my time there had such a profound impact.
I went back to the states and improvised a [fund-raising] exhibition and invited everyone I knew. I ended up selling my work and raised almost $11,000 for wells [for the school]. That was a pivotal point in my development as a photographer because I realized my photos weren't just pretty pictures. They could make people care about people thousands of miles away.
Q: You started photographing your mother in 2009 — she had a recurrence of her breast cancer — for a class project at the International Center of Photography in New York. How did your relationship with your mother evolve over the next several years?
A: What surprised me was how open she was with me. When you look at both my parents, it was my dad who was the open book. He was larger than life. You make eye contact with him, and he will share his life story. My mom was more private, the rock who kept our family grounded.
My mom was driving us to soccer and Hebrew school and making our dinner. She made sure we were washed and brushed and in bed. Now as an adult, I have such a greater respect for her, not just as a mom but as an individual.
Q: Your mother's cancer in September 2011. Your father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012. What was the most difficult part about documenting the end of their lives? Did anything about it surprise you?
A: My mom never let on about much pain she might have been in. She did not want to be defined by her disease. She wanted to be treated as a normal mom, so I treated her as a normal mom. She didn't appear to be concerned or angry.
It was strange. I wonder, when you have a disease that extends over several years, if maybe you come to terms with the reality at a certain point. She told me when she was first diagnosed [in 1997] that she was scared. She had three young kids and was terrified of leaving them. When it came back a second time, she was angry. She was healthy and eating well and exercising... but it came back.
She felt her body was betraying her, and she was frustrated.
Throughout the process, we grew closer. … When my parents were both sick, I remember demanding transparency. I said, "I want to help however I can. .. " I told them, "I need to be the advocate for you," because they had been the advocate for me all these years.
Q: "The Family Imprint" includes reproductions of greeting cards and all sorts of memorabilia amid your photography. What inspired that?
A: When my siblings [Matt and Jessica] and I were cleaning out the family house, we found that my mom had kept every greeting card she had received.
I wanted to go through them. ... It gave me a sense of who [my parents] were at a particular time. I wanted to understand who they were as individuals and as a couple.
That was the most exciting part about finding these cards. I was learning about them, and by reading these words, I was finding out about myself. … It was beautiful to see how they wrote, to see their handwriting, to see all the exclamation points, to see their thought process.
Q: How did the book come together?
A: When I was first thinking of publishing a book, I approached a couple of American publishers and they said, ''It's a beautiful story, but no one wants to read a book about death." It caught me off guard. It was so clearly not a book about death. It was a book about life.
I went to Kickstarter, and I asked for $45,000. I raised the $45,000 in two weeks. The campaign kept going, and by the time the campaign ended, I had raised $65,313.
This book was funded by 740 people — many of them whom I didn't know. The kindness and the love … sometimes it's overwhelming. I feel I've been hugged and carried by hundreds of people who feel invested in the story.
Q: How has this experience influenced the way you think about the future?
A: The greatest gift I take away from this whole experience is that I now have an understanding of what life means... of what is important... to not take each day for granted. If cancer is what gets me, so be it. I already feel I have lived a pretty lucky life. I loved my parents. I love my siblings. I love my husband and our little dog
Q: What do you want people to take away from the book ?
A: Remember that life is short. Maybe you don't need to wait until your loved one is dying to have this true experience of life.