Not as I Pictured: Journalism professor's personal journey an inspiration to others
A self-portrait taken by Journalism Professor John Kaplan in his bathroom mirror as a means of coping with his diagnosis and treatment of a potentially deadly form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has become a powerful, moving film now inspiring cancer patients, their families and caregivers, and medical professionals throughout the world.
“I had no idea that so many positive things could come forth from such devastating news,” said Kaplan. “Fortunately, this has been at the core of my motivation to make Not As I Pictured.”
Diagnosed in 2008, Kaplan, a husband and father of two young children, was suddenly staring at a daunting, uncertain future.
“In journalism, cancer stories are considered the biggest cliché,” said Kaplan. “I’ve judged more than 100 contests, including the Pulitzer, and I’ve literally seen dozens of them. But when you get cancer, you don’t feel like a cliché, you just pray you can beat it. I had rarely been ill, so when a routine CT scan revealed a kidney tumor and an eventual diagnosis of a rare case of lymphoma growing inside me, picking up a camera was the last thing on my mind.”
Kaplan did, however, eventually pick up that camera and the result is a 54-minute feature length documentary that shares his powerful will to make it through the fear, and survive the hardship. By turning the lens on himself and chronicling his treatment that included a bone marrow biopsy and countless hours of chemotherapy, his imagery takes the viewer beyond Kaplan’s despair, to see his powerful belief that he can, and must, beat his cancer.
Not As I Pictured: A Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer’s Journey Through Lymphoma, features several surprisingly magical moments and ends with the family’s shared joy as they get word Kaplan’s cancer is in remission.
The movie, released earlier this year, has not only captured the attention of families touched by cancer, but also the notice of the film industry, with more than 20 honors including two prestigious CINE Golden Eagle Awards, several Best Documentary film festival accolades, as well as ADDY Gold, Best of Show and regional silver awards for public service.
In producing the documentary, Kaplan had support from many corners. Moved by the film’s content, musicians from around the globe donated music for the soundtrack, including Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Coldplay’s Chris Martin, David Bowie, will.i.am, Justin Timberlake, Pantera and Cowboy Junkies.“The film project began by accident when I decided to take that self-portrait in my bathroom mirror,” said Kaplan. “I shot virtually all of the stills and most of the video, either hand held with wide-angle lenses or through the use of remotes.”
Throughout the film, Kaplan chronicles his family’s experience, but he also shares how he introduced his illness to his students. On the first day of his international journalism class wearing a bright red tee shirt that proclaimed “Love Kills Cancer,” Kaplan tipped his cap to his students, revealing his bald head and explained he had been diagnosed with cancer. Despite six months of chemo treatments, Kaplan never missed a class, but was not permitted by his doctors to fly with his students on a trip to Guatemala.
Today, Kaplan is using the momentum from the film’s recognition to get the message out that while one in three American women – and one in two American men – will get cancer in their lifetime, the disease today can often be looked at as a chronic illness rather than the death sentence as in years gone by – and he’s taking to the road – and to the television screen – to spread that message.
Not As I Pictured, first broadcast on WUFT-TV this spring, is now airing nationwide on PBS, reaching more than 80 million homes, including 80 percent of the top ten U.S. markets.
“During my treatment, we received so much wonderful help along the way, often from strangers. By giving away the film, I’m determined to give some of that back.”
In addition, thanks in part to six-figure funding from the Enlight Foundation, Kaplan is giving away more than 10,000 free copies of Not As I Pictured at the film’s website, NotAsIPictured.org.
“Everyone keeps telling me I should sell copies of the film,” Kaplan said. “But during my treatment, we received so much wonderful help along the way, often from strangers. By giving away the film, I’m determined to give some of that back.”
In many cities around the country, community cancer-coping forums are accompanying film screenings and Kaplan is sharing his story at as many of these as possible. He’s also speaking to oncology conferences, hospitals and cancer support centers and has worked with the American Society of Clinical Oncology to edit and produce a 16-page booklet with an accompanying DVD that targets the emotional side of coping and lifestyle tips for patients, caregivers and survivors. Underwriters include the American Cancer Society, UF and Shands Healthcare, and the UF College of Medicine.
“The film has tremendous potential as a teaching tool in conveying ‘humanism in medicine,’ an area of research I’m particularly interested in now,” said Kaplan.
“This growing movement in medical education seeks to understand the patient as a person, focusing on individual values, goals and preferences with respect to clinical decisions. This is my way of giving back.”
Kaplan has created an ongoing Not As I Pictured public service health communications campaign targeting media outreach, utilizing the services of two public relations firms, and a PBS station relation’s agency. “We want the film to be a vehicle to help convey that so many cancers today are not only treatable, they are beatable,” said Kaplan.
Using a camera remote hidden in his hand, Kaplan photographs what he calls the worst pain he has ever endured, a bone marrow biopsy. He endured two separate, simultaneous non-Hodgkin’s cancer diagnoses, one type found in his bone marrow and a second in his lower abdomen. (Click photos to enlarge)
Recent media coverage on the film includes articles in the Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, Columbus (OH) Dispatch, Tampa Tribune, Spokane (WA) Spokesman-Review, Orlando Sentinel, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Palm Beach Post, Allentown (PA) Morning Call, Wilmington (DE) News Journal, YahooNews, the American Cancer Society, CureToday, Cancer.Net, China’s Photo World magazine, and more.
Television interviews with Kaplan have included WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, the ABC affiliate in Detroit, and NPR radio interviews on affiliates in several states.
Kaplan joined the UF journalism faculty 13 years ago and today teaches “Social Media and Social Responsibility,” “Advanced Photojournalism,” and “Advanced Design,” and is the co-founder of the “Florida FlyIns” international journalism course.
He is one of the nation’s most accomplished photographers, having been awarded the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his project about the diverse lifestyles of America’s 21-year-olds. His project on survivors of torture in West Africa was awarded the 2003 Overseas Press Club Award for Feature Photography and the Harry Chapin Media Award. The United Nations used his work to help facilitate contact with the victims.
These days John Kaplan is squeezing as much as he can out of life. Between his travels to speak to cancer patients, caregivers, and survivors, and the promotional tour and public service campaign required of a film of this magnitude, a full teaching load and keeping up with his wife, Li, and two children, Carina, 8, and Max, 5, there’s not much time left at the end of the day.
He does, however, find time to reflect on the journey, but tries not to worry about the future. “As my doctor says, with some cancers you never know,” said Kaplan. “I don’t spend time dwelling on that. I’m just glad I’m here for my family, here for my students and know this film project will truly help other people face the challenges of a cancer diagnosis.”
Anyone touched by cancer can order a free DVD copy of the film for personal use at NotAsIPictured.org.
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