Renowned photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi opens up about his intimate project chronicling his daughter’s fight against cancer. By Fiona Galea Debono.

Photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi’s images chronicling his 15-year-old daughter’s battle with a deadly cancer during a pandemic speak for themselves.

The pictures capture the young girl in a range of emotions, from pain to perturbing and party spirit.

This type of photography, the Reuters photojournalist explains, aims to invite viewers to share in the emotions of the subject and creator: “If they feel just a fraction of what we felt, then I can safely say the images work.” 

Rebecca, also known as Becs, was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and extremely aggressive form of bone cancer, a year ago. Less than six months later, her battle would be exacerbated by a global pandemic, which impacted her treatment plans.

Having completed her 14th chemotherapy cycle over four months of lockdown in hospital, she was finally discharged in mid-July. But as she recently returned for more unexpected chemotherapy and radiothera­py and awaits vital test results, her father plans to continue documenting her story.

“None of this is over yet – not by a long shot,” Zammit Lupi recognises.

But the process was “therapeutic”, says the former Times of Malta photojournalist.

“Being behind the camera also gives an element of detachment, a sense of protection, however false that may be.

“In this case, it was all so much closer to home and deeply personal, but sometimes, concentrating on getting a good photo provided enough distraction to make the situation easier to deal with.”

It all started because of coronavirus and the enforced separation from his vulnerable daughter for her own safety, which prompted Zammit Lupi to keep a diary. The thought of documenting her journey in photos had long been on his mind, but he did nothing about it until Reuters suggested it.

Although sensitive about her hair loss, Becs had no problem being photographed without her cap.Although sensitive about her hair loss, Becs had no problem being photographed without her cap.

“I had not been doing much work since Becs fell ill and felt the urge to get back in the game. I needed to do something creative again…

“Lockdown at hospital had just begun, and the original intention was to document my own isolation, separated from my seriously ill daughter, while my wife, Mars, and Becs would use their phone cameras to document things at their end.”

But once he was allowed to switch places with Mars in hospital, almost two months later, the focus changed, and he began to photograph Becs’s daily life, capturing another angle on the global news story.

Zammit Lupi did two three-week stints in hospital over the following two months, and along the course of half a year now, he has shot thousands of pictures of Becs.

Though she was incredibly sensitive about her hair loss and would not even look in a mirror if she was not wearing her cap, she had no problem being photographed without it

The whole process was carried out with his family’s full consent and the option to pull the plug on it at any time, but Zammit Lupi said he never really thought twice about it and about portraying his daughter in her plight.

“What was important was that Becs was happy to go ahead… The story empowered her; she was delighted with it.”

Becs was immediately fully behind the project and ready to expose her illness and its physical effects on her to the world. This when, as a teenager, looks and image can be an issue, and other girls are posing on Instagram and filtering their faces to portray the perfect picture.

‘A good documentary photographer can make even suffering look beautiful, and that helps force people to look and look again.’ − Becs’ father Darrin‘A good documentary photographer can make even suffering look beautiful, and that helps force people to look and look again.’ − Becs’ father Darrin

Of course, there were times when she did not feel up to being photographed, just as there were times her father did not feel up to taking pictures too.

But even though she was “incredibly sensitive” about her hair loss and would not even look in a mirror if she was not wearing her cap, she had no problem being photographed without it.

“It showed incredible strength of character,” Zammit Lupi says. “She is undoubtedly the strongest person I have ever come across in that respect, and I do not say that because she is my daughter.”

For Zammit Lupi, it was important to maintain and, if possible, reinforce his daughter’s dignity throughout.

“I wanted the pictures to be a testament to her incredible and inspiring inner strength, and from the feedback, we can already see it empowering others going through a similar predicament.”

As a bonus, with the help of friends and colleagues, it has even helped raise funds for the Puttinu Cares Foundation, which is playing a huge role in helping Becs.

Her mother was also behind the project, describing it as “stressing the distress of our family not only facing a one-in-a-million cancer, but also a one-in-a-century pandemic, which is making it impossible to cope psychologically and physically.

“I feel Becs’s physical pain every minute. I go through it, if not worse, psychologically. I can only relate to one other mother – Our Lady, Mary,” she says of her despair.

‘I feel Becs’s physical pain every minute. I go through it, if not worse, psychologically. − her mother Mars‘I feel Becs’s physical pain every minute. I go through it, if not worse, psychologically. − her mother Mars

“My husband has documented the journey of suffering immigrants and people have often asked how psychologically challenging that must be. It now becomes a drop in the ocean next to this pain and distress.”

As to whether his camera ever felt invasive, Zammit Lupi says he did not photograph every aspect of life in his daughter’s hospital room, and if ever staff needed his help, that always took priority over taking pictures.

“There were many occasions when I put the camera down,” he recalls.

“It sounds weird and is considered highly controversial in photography academic circles, but a good documentary photographer can make even suffering look beautiful, and that helps force people to look and look again.”

Rebecca was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and extremely aggressive form of bone cancer.Rebecca was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and extremely aggressive form of bone cancer.

Inspiring him to grab his camera in any given moment was either “what was happening in front of me and the visual elements all coming together”; or the exceptional quality of light, especially the mid-to-late-afternoon sunlight through the window of Becs’ room in the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre’s Rainbow Ward.

The photo essay has, to date, featured as far afield as Malaysia, New Zealand, the UAE and the US, among many other countries, and Zammit Lupi has been amazed and overwhelmed by the feedback, including mostly from complete strangers, some going through similar experiences.

‘Concentrating on getting a good photo provided enough distraction to make the situation easier to deal with.’‘Concentrating on getting a good photo provided enough distraction to make the situation easier to deal with.’

It is hard to choose a particularly special photo, but when pressed, he goes for the shot of Becs finally outside hospital, under a sea of stars at night, looking at Comet Neowise.

“She had only been at home for a few days, after months in a single room most of the time. The contrast between that solitary confinement and the wide expanse of space affected her in a very positive way.”

A second option would have to be the image of her face breaking into a huge smile as the thermoplastic mask she wore for the ravaging daily regime of radiotherapy was removed for the last time at the end of what was meant to be her final therapy session.

“It speaks a million words!”

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