For photographer Rachel Ambroson, photography is a therapeutic tool that helped her climb out of a dark place and find her light. Using her camera, Rachel was able to begin healing after the trauma of her daughter Olivia’s cancer diagnosis. In her story below, Rachel talks about why photographing through the pain was healing to her, and why telling the whole story is important. She also shares her tips for using photography as therapy.

When everything changed

Like many parents, my love for photography grew after I had my first child, a sweet girl we named Olivia. Not long after her birth, someone kindly gifted me their old Canon DSLR. I had no idea how to use a “real” camera and have at least 10,000 wildly out of focus images from Olivia’s first year of life to prove it.

That same precious baby was diagnosed with cancer at 19 months old. It was earth shattering to say the least. Our life was suddenly divided in two by this singular traumatic event; the life we had before cancer, and the life we led after cancer.

Images of our life before evoke strong memories and feelings; the newness of our marriage, the excitement of becoming parents for the first time, and the comfort we had found in our home. I can go back to those moments and be thankful that we ever knew a time so simple.

Photo of a girl sleeping in a fleece blanket, Rachel Ambroson

Photography led me out of a dark place.

I didn’t pick up my camera much right after Olivia was diagnosed. I was certain that I didn’t want to remember any of that. I was drowning in chaos and confusion and hormones (pregnant with baby #2) and was desperate to get my head above the water.

My need to document and create eventually led me out of a dark place. I began to recognize that even the hard parts of our story need to be told — maybe most especially the hard parts.

Photo of a girl sleeping in striped light, Rachel Ambroson

“The art is driven by a need to be seen, even if I am the only one looking.”

Photo of a girl in a rainbow hammock, Rachel Ambroson

Photography is my refuge.

In the years since her treatment ended, I have grappled with PTSD and anxiety. I tried self soothing with empty things but those things naturally left me feeling emptier. I eventually turned back to photography as therapy.

I read mountains of tutorials and took workshops through Click Photo School and learned how to use my camera. I found such peace in creating. I began to take notice of the world around me and literally started to see the light. I could get lost in editing a single portrait of one of my children.

The shift in focus and having something that belonged to me was absolutely healing. The trauma doesn’t go away but photography allowed me a way to leave the hurt and frustration behind for a little bit — to express myself in a way that made some sort of sense to me, without even having to speak a word.

When I pour over an image, my mind settles, my feelings lay bare. The picture I made may visually not even represent my state of mind, but the process of creating is always connected to it. The art is driven by a need to be seen, even if I am the only one looking.

Photography is my refuge, an art that has evolved from the conflict of being stuck and desperately wanting to move forward.

Black and white photo of girl in bathtub

The whole story matters.

Photos are sometimes all we have left of the time before. The way her hair looked before chemo made it all fall out, and the beautiful ringlets that eventually grew back.

I have this grainy cell phone picture that my husband  snapped as we were leaving one of many radiation sessions. Olivia is wrapped up in my arms, both of us awkwardly strapped to a gurney. We had to take an ambulance to and from the children’s hospital to the radiation oncology facility, four trips per day, over the span of four days.

That day, the paramedics let me sit with her on the gurney because she just needed me. The ambulance was decorated with Christmas lights. It was cold and the streets were glistening with fresh rain. When I look at that picture, I  can still feel her weight on my hugely pregnant belly, our exhaustion, and the mix of anguish and hope that always lingered.

That image takes me right back there and I’m thankful for it, even though we were all deeply hurting. We were together and that’s all that really mattered. 

Photo of girl with ring of lens flare

We are here.

Olivia has no memory of that time, thankfully. We carry that for her. She can look at the images and see it all unfold. I think as she gets older, this visual story will become more important to her. Survivorship comes with its own set of complications and there is so much yet for her to process and come to terms with. 

She is now eight years out from her bone marrow transplant and is thriving. We were able to meet her bone marrow donor a few years ago (our hero) and she even got to be the flower girl in his wedding. That was like a dream come true. Things are not always easy though. She has to take growth hormone due to thyroid damage and had to have cataracts removed from both of her eyes due to radiation treatments.

These are not the last survivorship obstacles she will face and we have some difficult conversations ahead of us. I will be there with her every step of the way and will continue to find my own solace in the creative process.

Photography as therapy: 4 tips to help you heal

photography as therapy, photo of girl's eyes

1. Don’t put pressure on yourself to create. Take a time out if you need to. For me, this meant not touching my camera for a few weeks. Give yourself loads of grace. If it feels like work, it’s not what you need to be focusing on.

2. Perfection is not your friend. We spent 40 nights in a hospital with bad lighting, minimal sleep, and a very sick child. Most of my pictures from that time are not award winners. I used the camera I had with me, which was often a first generation iPad (hello grain and motion blur). I didn’t care then and I don’t care now.

I have precious photos of me comforting my child like only a mother can, of the sunset out her hospital room window on the night of her transplant, of her last chemo infusion, of all the machines and lines and tubes connected to her little body that were keeping her alive, and of us smiling through the pain. None of these photos are technically anywhere near perfect but they still matter.

3. Take a walk and open your eyes to the world around you. It is a relief to find something else to focus on. I started to see things in a new way and I haven’t looked back.

4. Share your art and your experience (if you feel comfortable doing so). I guarantee you that somebody out there can relate to you. You might just be a lifeline for them, and they for you.

Photos by Rachel Ambroson