David Needleman: How photography pushed me forward

Contributed by David Needleman, Survivor 

Each day, I remember how much life can change in just 24 hours …

I remember the day of my first colonoscopy. That day changed my life, and my perspective. It was a day I didn’t expect, and never would have experienced, if my partner’s gnawing cosmic sense didn’t have him push me to get screened. Now looking back, I can’t believe how quickly time flew. And with each day, month, and year that has followed my diagnosis, I see life before and after cancer. “After” seems like a bonus round, or something along those lines.  

It was a hot August day in New York City, 13 years ago. I was 29 years old and life (personally and professionally) was starting to come together. Or at least I thought it was. But, that one test result can really change everything. And while I initially worried that change would be for the worse, my diagnosis instead gifted me with heightened senses of appreciation, focus, and clarity that led me to the beginning of the rest of my life. There was a malignant tumor growing somewhere in the middle of my colon. Stage 2 Colon Cancer. At 29.

I remember sitting with my partner (now husband) on the stoop of an East 64th Street doctor’s office, quietly cycling through a wild range of emotions. Without dismissing or glossing over the challenging 18-month battle that followed, the diagnosis granted me such an overwhelming sense of gratitude and appreciation for my life, which I’ve carried every day since. That included appreciation for every compassionate and kind person in my life (as well as care for those who might be working their way toward kindness and compassion). And ever since, I’ve continued to make a strong constant daily effort to surface that humanity within my work, and to carry it through within each subject I’d photograph. So, with that, I hope that people may see and recognize a feeling of sincerity within my pictures.

During my surgeries, hospital stays, and struggles navigating NYC for months with a colostomy bag, my loved ones always kept me grounded, but photography pushed me forward.  

Photography kept me focused and moving, literally. My camera never left my side. It helped me to capture those many moments of inspiration I relentlessly sought each day. Photography was my constant companion. The determination it fueled within carried me through cancer and ultimately led me to my career as a portrait photographer. With camera in hand, that daunting and anxiety-provoking cancer diagnosis I worried and thought might stop me (and just as my career got going), instead propelled me toward a career to which I’d long aspired. No surgery, cumbersome colostomy bag, or exhaustion could stop me. Daily bursts of motivation propelled me through the streets of New York to hunt for moments of inspiration, joy and hope — and toward such people who brought those moments to life.

Thirteen years later, I still feel that daily spark of motivation that propelled me during my cancer battle. It’s a reminder of how fortunate I am and of how much life has to offer. Knowing I could have lost the chance to experience those daily moments of inspiration only drives me to capture more of them in my work. My intent and hope has always been to do my best and be my best to bring those moments to everyone who needs the same inspiration, both within my life and within my work.

As I look back, I’m not sure I’d be the photographer I am today without my journey through colon cancer. I always wonder whether my love of art and photography alone would have been enough to persevere without that overwhelming experience of having colon cancer. My battle helped nurture that drive with immense gratitude. It ultimately enabled me to react and connect with the world, while maintaining that positive perspective in the foreground of my vision, all these years later. Photography was even often a guiding light out of that dark, isolating tunnel in which cancer battles all-too-often can place us.

So, as much as I don’t like to let my cancer define me or my path, I’d be lying if I pretended it didn't inform each decision I’ve made since the day of my diagnosis. In sharing my journey, I really want people (especially those going through it right now) to know that their cancer doesn’t need to define their story or hinder their dreams, but instead can move you forward through that stronger pair of glasses through which to see life, loved ones, and future opportunity more clearly … if you let it.

Love, David



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