Photographer Barbara Warren sits at her Yardley townhouse dining room. In front of her are 17 recent images — haunting composites blending human, geometric, and natural shapes and underscored with captions: “We are all on a journey toward death. Will cancer kill me?” “I will fight this tooth and nail,” and “I used to be angry, tough, bitter. Now I am kind, warm, thoughtful. Cancer cured me.”
Lively and dressed in a vibrant floral blouse, Warren smiles and says, “I don’t like saying I’m a breast cancer survivor. I’ll use it. It’s a part of me. But I’m not my disease. I’m a person.”
What she doesn’t mind talking about is her experience with cancer and the photographs that form the core of the Princeton Photography Club’s “We Are More Than Our Diseases,” an exhibition opening Friday, August 14, at Gallery 14 in Hopewell. The exhibition will move in October to the D&R Greenway and next year to the Lakeside Gallery at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton.
Warren says the exhibition title comes from a quote from the journal she kept when cancer entered her life and body 14 years ago. The idea of an exhibition that incorporates images and statements was born in 2003 after a double mastectomy saved and changed the life of the retired member of the Rohm and Haas Chemical Company research and marketing sector.
“It’s a journey, an emotional journey when we have cancer,” says Warren, who is now a professional photographer. “And I wanted to do something on the support I received at Fox Chase. I wanted to do something to honor the women there because they did so much for me. They understood my options and how I could be an active participant in my treatment. Sometimes you can get overwhelmed with the complexity of the disease.”
While photographers Joel Blum (East Windsor), Ilya Genin (Yardley), Scott Gordon (Yardley), Janet Hautau (Princeton), Wayne Klaw (Haddon Heights), Fay Kobland (Cranbury), Randy Koslo (West Windsor), Christine Stadelmeier (Trenton), Vivien Van Natta (Princeton), and Jon Walker (East Millstone) also contribute images from their own personal experiences, Warren’s larger and unified body of work is the acknowledged soul for the club’s annual show at Gallery 14.
And like the idea of a human soul, Warren’s work is all about something unseen. “I met a lot of women one on one, and they told me their stories about having mastectomies. Each had a story about what they were concerned about. Some wanted to be healthy. Some wanted to balance safety or security. A lot of times you want to put yourself in the doctor’s hands and say, ‘Fix me!’ But I get think you get a better treatment if you participate. The group of women helped me to understand and know what they chose. And it helped me understand what they had gone through. I wanted to minimize cancer so it wouldn’t come back. And I am the kind of person who would stay up at night and worry if it were coming back. When I spoke to women who had mastectomies, they had peace of mind. So I chose to be very aggressive, and I am glad that I did. Women do have a choice,” she says.
Warren mentions two women who especially influenced the spirit of the exhibition: Diane Kae, her Fox Chase “cancer coach,” and Ann Mark, a friend and Lawrenceville resident who died of ovarian cancer in 2013. Both taught her about cancer’s “gifts.”
“One of the things that’s amazing about Ann is that she battled ovarian cancer for 12 years. She had such an attitude that was astounding. Generally she was very positive and upbeat. Most people would not know she had cancer, and she didn’t tell people because she didn’t want to be ‘that person with the disease’ — because it’s isolating in many ways. Ann found gifts. And there are many. Diane (Kae) said with the ugliness of cancer there are many gifts,” says Warren. Having cancer “helps you set your priorities in life, decide what is really important, and let go of the little things.”
One gift Warren received was the ability to see how to create the exhibition, one that helps her remember Ann — through image and statement — and do something unusual in photography. “I wanted less documentary and more internal process, how people feel,” she says.
To give an example, Warren picks up a photo — peopled with shadows and the face of a sculpture — and says, “Here is an early photo (in the series), ‘My body has Betrayed Me.’ Everyone goes through this. A friend told me she thought, ‘Why me?’ and then thought, ‘Why not me?’”
Then there’s fear. “The time between diagnosis and treatment is probably the hardest part of the journey. You can’t help but worry. You don’t know how it is going to impact your life. Cancer is a sneaky bastard. I think this is one of the reasons that cancer is so scary: it’s kind of devious. One woman came to a support group, and she looked stunned. She said, ‘I never had a lump and found that I had metastatic cancer.’ Cancer is like a crap shoot, and that makes it scary.”
More than a chronicler of one disease, Warren is both a fine arts and a commercial photographer whose website categorizes her activities through several headings, including “Visions” (thematic explorations), “Journeys” (travel images), and “People” (weddings, engagements, and mitzvahs). Her studio is on the second floor of the home she shares with her partner Dave Hough, who works in research and development for Janssen in Titusville.
The transplanted daughter of Kentucky farmers says that she became interested in photography decades ago after purchasing a single-lenses reflex camera for a trip and deciding to learn how to use it to get the best images possible. The hobby eventually led to classes, including those with Princeton-based photographer Ricardo Barros, and having work appear in photography magazines and exhibitions. In 2013 Barros helped her mount an exhibition at the Arts Council of Princeton: “Fighting Medusa,” a suite of poetically charged images of herself taking on various personae from Greek mythology.
While Warren says she is uncomfortable having her photo taken, she says that for this exhibition she needed to expose herself — body and soul. “I hate having my picture taken. Prior doing the Medusa series, I would say I don’t look good. Why am I willing to do it now? Because I think it’s an important story. And I need to put me — and Ann — in the story. Without the story it’s a bunch of platitudes. People relate to other people’s stories. It helps me. And I hope that other people feel that. I am hoping that it will end up in cancer centers where it might have its best impact.”
The “why now?” was also part of an artistic development. “The project has evolved. There were a few times I tried to do something, but I didn’t like it. This is a different thing for me. I have never done composites before. So as an artist it is growth as well.
“I started off as a nature photographer. I didn’t like taking pictures of people and got into it when my niece asked me to photograph her wedding. That made me realize it could be fun. But it also challenged me in a way that nature photography doesn’t. I found my art photography influencing my wedding work and my wedding work influencing my nature work. Both are combined here.”
Both also reflect an esthetic approach. “I want images to be beautiful. People like looking at pretty things. I wanted these to have a lyrical quality because I think people tend to look longer at them. That was part of the struggle, to make them look beautiful and engaging but to deal with a not-so-beautiful subject.”
She then connects this current body of work to the Medusa series. “That was my first story telling, so I guess it was good trial run. But I also struggled with the same thing. I wanted them to be beautiful.”
The current work’s connection to ancient Greece becomes pronounced when Warren points to the image of herself titled “I am an Amazon Woman,” a reference to ancient women combatants who willingly removed a breast to use an archery bow in battle. “Women who do this are really warriors. We are fighters. It does give you a peace of mind to feel like you gave a good fight and gave it all. I guess every good story is about a fight, some sort of conflict.”
Talking about the “more” mentioned in the exhibition’s title, Warren smiles and says with the conviction of one having been tested, “We are conquerors. We are survivors. We are people. We are human beings. Our experience is much broader than a disease.”
We Are More Than Our Diseases, Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. Friday, August 14, through Sunday, September 6. Reception Friday, August 14, 6 to 8 p.m. Meet the photographers Sunday, August 16, 1 to 3 p.m. 732-422-3676 or www.princetonphotoclub.org. Gallery 14: www.photogallery14.com.