For someone who began capturing photos at seven years old, seeing life through a lens is second nature. And, using photography for the purpose of storytelling is a skill Baton Rouge photographer and journalist Leslie D. Rose has mastered with The Picture of Health photo project that displays the full scope of people living with invisible illnesses. From capturing bottles of medicines and supplements, medical equipment, vials of blood of another, bundles of hair loss, and hidden scars, Rose takes great care to present photographic stories of people living with invisible, chronic, and often debilitating diseases.
For many people living with invisible illnesses, very rarely do they “look sick.” And quite often, there is no celebration in looking like they are disease-free when beneath the surface their bodies are fighting debilitating conditions or chronic pain.
In fact, a moment of conversation with someone living with diseases like multiple sclerosis, diabetes, fibromyalgia, or lupus, will reveal little known truths about the appearance of illness and the journey to get to an accurate diagnosis. These truths are some of the reasons Rose unveiled The Picture of Health photo exhibit this summer at the Healthcare Gallery and followed with a three-month show at Southern Cofe in Scotlandville.
Inspired by her own fibromyalgia journey and her husband’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis, Rose created this exhibit to help non-ill people better understand what “sick” really looks like while giving the power of transparency to people who are chronically ill. Shining light on invisible illnesses of all kinds has become a passion project for her after a simple Facebook post that asked people to comment with a selfie if they had invisible illnesses. More than a hundred posts and responses followed and she realized something should be done. “And this (exhibit) is that something,” Rose said. “The biggest thing is to elicit compassion.”
For those viewing the exhibit at the gallery and coffee shop, The Picture of Health accomplishes more.
“This exhibit is moving. I see myself in every picture,” said Vanessa Pitts who has lived with systemic lupus erythematosus for more than 20 years.
Tinicia Turner said this is “such an awesomely fresh and thought-provoking exhibit.”
“Thanks, Leslie D Rose for bringing light to those suffering in the shadows,” said Tamiko Francis Garrison whose photo presents polycystic kidney disease and migraines in the exhibit.
The exhibit features more than one dozen Louisianians living with invisible illnesses like kidney disease, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, autism, psoriatic arthritis, Sjogren’s Syndrome, high blood pressure, and more. They volunteer to share their stories. In five months since the reveal, Rose has photographed people with ten different conditions.
The photos show people in the manner in which they present themselves daily. Using a mixture of headshots, full-body shots, and shots of the individual’s hands holding a sign listing their diagnosis, the exhibit focuses on the perceived normalcy of people housed in ill bodies. Photographs are also shared on @PicofHealthBR social media pages along with hashtags of illnesses to expand awareness and garner more participation. The mission is to highlight invisible illness, elicit compassion, and promote education on a variety of health issues.
For those who are photographed, the project is liberating. “This was one of the most rewarding and freeing experience of my life! To be able to see so many people who, suffer with invisible illnesses, share their journeys was truly inspiring. It was also quite amazing to see what they battle everyday. These warriors inspired me and filled the room with love and hope!” said Sylvia Chapman.
One of the exhibit’s collections features Chapman who shared how psoriatic arthritis and psoriasis sent her life spiraling through debilitating health crisis and depression. “I often asked God why this was happening to me and then I started to see purpose in it,” Chapman said. For her, the yearlong Picture of Health exhibit helps her release her purpose of showing others that they can survive and live their lives completely with illness.
“To have our silent suffering validated and brought to light is healing, and Leslie’s work is beautiful,” said Meghan Matt. In September, Rose gathered participants and the public for a Coffee Chat at Southern Cofe to dialogue on invisible illnesses. They answered candid questions on diagnosis, fears, frustrations, and relationships.
“My heart is full because so many people are interested in promoting invisible illness awareness,” said Rose who plans to host more events.
“I have been somewhat shocked by the demographics of people who have signed up to be featured in The Picture of Health. I think I’ve inadvertently given encouragement to women who look like me and inspired them to share their stories. I have worked to create a safe space for those with illnesses to share their stories, but it appears that my own identity has given way for other women of color to feel even more comfortable sharing,” she said.
“It is truly amazing the response and amount of support this project has received. Leslie has definitely created something educational, relatable, eye-opening, and beautiful,” said exhibit curator April Baham.
Pieces are still being added to the exhibit and a full showing is being scheduled for May 2020.
Rose’s activism-based arts organization, CreActiv, LLC seeks a temporary home for the preview pieces on display and a location to host the full exhibit next year.
On Sunday, Oct.13, the group hosted a panel discussion, “Invisible Illness Awareness through the Arts,” to explore art as a tool for building awareness around the taboo subject of health issues. Panelists will discuss the creation of the project, stigmas surrounding disclosing illnesses, what it is like to have an invisible illness, ways to elicit compassion for those who suffer every day, and more. The program also featured a musical performance by Chris “The Madd Katt” Lee that will depict the pain of sciatica through drum beats. Lee is an “invisible illness warrior” featured in the exhibit.
“The mission of pushing invisible illness to the forefront of the conversation is very hard…People who wake up in pain but generally look well fight everyday to act how they look instead of allowing their bodies to feel. This is a super trying process. I appreciate everyone’s support, but I fear that our voices are not yet loud enough. …Feel how you feel, support yourself, talk about it, support other invisible illness warriors, and champion this mission,” said Rose.
SOCIAL MEDIA: @PicofHealthBR
By Candace J Semien
Jozef Syndicate ereporter