Reality Trauma

  • Photographer
    Carly Clarke
  • Date of Photograph
    March - September 2012
  • Technical Info
    Pentax 6x7, Kodak 120 film

‘Reality Trauma’ is a self-portrait photographic series I produced between March-September 2012. I was diagnosed with stage 4b Hodgkin Lymphoma, and a large tumour inside my right lung, during my final year of a BA photography degree at Middlesex University. While overwhelmed with chemotherapy treatment for 6 months and the idea of possibly dying, I felt a necessity to record my journey and document my life as it changed drastically. My hope is that the audience can see not just the horrifying aspects, but also the promise that being a survivor of cancer gives and the tremendous hope for others facing it. Change is the biggest part of our identity and my series is a portrait of a person I perceive that I am, but only in one moment in time, and not necessarily the next. This work is a collection of moments and identities, as is the practice of photography.


My body became a shell, limited in movement, filled with pain, while I could do nothing but hope and wait for every treatment to end. The image of who I thought I was became unfamiliar, almost alien, losing my hair and so much weight, unable to recognise the reflection in the mirror, which I avoided at all costs. The hospital staff and doctors became like a family to me. I put my trust in their hands through every biopsy and every significant event that required me to surrender to all that was beyond my control. My identity felt crushed, yet I didn’t mind because I knew this perception of a helpless human being was not really me, for inside I was strong, determined and hopeful, and utterly terrified.

My life slowed down to concentrating on getting through each moment, drug to drug, endless exams, giant needles, biopsies drilling deep into bone, tubes down my throat, and hoping for some day, the pain to end. A plastic line inserted to my heart fed sickening but healing medicine through my arm, trying to kill the cancer but taking my strength with it. The cure is as dangerous as the disease, and chemotherapy takes one to the very edge of life. Rapid downhill weight loss was, the most visible threat, and my skeleton became more visible by day, a reminder of each precious pound lost. The powerful pain killers pushed my fragile life boat even further from the shore of what was once life, nauseating and bending every sense, but I held on. Will I live through this? I did not know.

A meditative focus on the small things that mattered really helped. I found much comfort talking to those in hospital of similar experiences, and spending time with family and friends. Nothing but a photograph can take me back to my time with cancer, that moment in its entirety, re-living the sensations, the feelings I felt and the fears I held in my mind.

These photographs evoke some painful memories for me; however they also remind me of the huge capacity of my own human body to endure through such hellish times. My body, mind and soul were tested to the ultimate ends unimaginable and I experienced life on an unbound level.

Traumatic times can be reflected upon as lessons in survival that awaken us to cherish the subtleties of everyday life and our reality that can so easily be taken for granted. This period in my life, is evidence that no matter what life throws at us, we can get through it, even when words cannot explain who ‘we’ are anymore or why we are here. What makes us important as human beings is being able to evolve and become and to create anything in this lifetime. We must allow ourselves to see beyond the ‘now’, because anything that we believe we are now, in this very moment in time is temporary, for we are always changing and becoming something else.

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