In January of this year, I was entrusted with the task of photographing Kim Simplis Barrow, the First Lady of Belize, for the cover of the next issue of ComplexD, a digital magazine out of the UK as well as for the inside feature article.
You probably remember that I photographed her and her family last summer, while I was a Road Warrior in Belize.
But the shoot this year was completely different. See, just about a month after I completed my assignment in Belize and returned home, Kim Barrow was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. At the age of 39. The news caught us all off guard – her family, her fellow Belizeans, and me – even more so because we had become friends over the months. I remember reading the message she sent me over and over, and how long it took me to absorb it.
It was the second time in 2011 that a woman close to me – and barely 40 – was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’d followed and supported my friend Jenny, albeit from a distance, from the moment she announced her condition back in July 2011. I’d read her emails and her Facebook updates while she went through her treatments and ups and downs. I remember being amazed at how strong and so positive she remained. And I knew she’d make it because of that.
So when Kim Barrow was diagnosed, I was taken aback but I knew that if anything it would be her spirit and faith that would get her through. She’s one of the most determined women I’ve met in a long while.
Still, nothing prepared me for the emotions and the energy I felt that day when I was at her house at 8.am on a Sunday for the photo shoot.
My first cover for a magazine, but also my first cancer patient portrait session.
We’d prepared the day before, by going over outfits and talking about the shoot. Per the editor of ComplexD, I was to capture four different looks, most of them close up portrait shots. The images were to reflect various emotions, including strength, happiness, reflection and courage. And they would all be in black and white.
Kim and I agreed we’d have fun with it. So we went through dresses, fun hats and fascinators (Kim has an amazing wardrobe so it wasn’t hard) and were both excited about the shoot. It was something she could look forward to.
I encouraged her to just be herself and to take it easy, while still using our required “looks” as a guideline.
The day of the shoot, I was worried about exhausting her so I kept track of the time we were shooting. She was in the thick of her once-every-three-weeks cancer treatment. We’d picked her “one good week” a month to shoot.
It took us just a little over 2 hours, and Kim was a trooper. In between breaks, we snacked on fresh fruits – like soursop, known to help fight cancer cells – yogurt and juice.
The experience of capturing a woman during one of her most vulnerable moments is one I will never forget. I felt her courage first-hand through my lens. She bared her soul and herself, for the benefit of other women who would read the magazine. To show that you can beat anything – with a positive attitude and a lot of faith.
We used very little make up on Kim – she rarely wore any even before. I wanted to capture nothing but the real Kim Simplis, not just the First Lady of Belize but a good woman you can’t keep down.
I have little doubt that our prior relationship made the shoot even stronger but I have to admit, this is some of my best portrait work to date. And it’s because it’s my favorite kind – natural, fun and raw. And with a purpose.
When I sat back at home reflecting on the day and going through the images for the editor, amazed at how on earth she managed to look so beautiful in the middle of cancer treatments – I realized that wasn’t just landing the cover of a magazine that had me so excited from the start. It was the importance of the role I got to play in a woman’s and a friend’s life in the midst of the most difficult time in her life. The chance to show her inner and outer beauty, and being a part of a bigger message: to keep the faith, keep supporting the search for a cure, to encourage all women to get tested even below the age of 40 and to keep believing that nothing is impossible.
The issue of ComplexD Magazine was just released today – and how fitting, because Kim just completed her last round of chemotherapy yesterday in Miami, Florida.
To have been the photographer who recorded this time in her life? A gift. I hope this issue and my images will inspire many more women to have faith and hang in there, to celebrate their “good days” as much as they can, and to remember that hair or no hair, make up or no make up, you’re only as fierce as you are in your soul.