JOURNAL: NEW BRAIN, THE BENEFIT

ART/CULTURE

JOURNAL: NEW BRAIN, THE BENEFIT

Jeffrey Shagawat's Journey Through Cancer

Text and Photos: Jeffrey Shagawat

Jeffrey Shagawat is a 37 year old photographer based in New York City. Last year, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain tumor. To deal with the devastating experience, he began documenting the process with two still film cameras and a video camera.  This body of work entitled NEW BRAIN is the culmination of his journey.  Jeff's cancer is now in remission and he is in the process of putting a gallery show together.  We asked him to share his story, and here it is:

I don't remember much about the night it happened. I remember a strong electric shock and my body parts contorting in unnatural ways. The rest is a blank. I was told that I would wander around my apartment opening doors and cabinets, moving items around. When I was done being a zombie, I would lie back in bed breathing and snorting heavily until I went back to sleep. Scary stuff.  Looking back, it's kind of funny because I was a zombie, opening and closing doors in the kitchen, naked. What an image, right? I'm finally on the right mixture of meds to relieve me from having any more seizures.
Suddenly my life became all about oncologists, neurologists, social workers, MRIs, chemotherapy, radiation, blood letting, hair losing, pills, paperwork, and major emotional highs and lows. To deal with the devastating experience I recorded it all. I never left the house without two still film cameras and a video camera.  I saved and documented everything. The first picture that I took was from the gurney trip into surgery as my family looked down at me with horrified faces. When I awoke I took a lot of self-portraits of me with a stapled skull, of me losing my hair, and of my recovery process. In between, I took a lot of shots from the ambulette to and from appointments, and also did some street photography, artistic nudes, and shoots with friends. I coped with my change through the lens of a camera.
With NEW BRAIN, I wanted to recreate the sense of confusion that permeated at the time of diagnosis.  I was in such shock back then and so medicated that the footage has now become a part of my memory. The videos are an interesting take on having an illness. A lot of it is medically related, like appointments with doctors, giving blood, and talking with my ambulette driver on my way to get radiation. On the flip side, there are also tons of abstract images of me wandering the streets and going on late night benders to relieve stress.
This experience has greatly affected my artistic vision. I had never truly realized how powerful a tool art is. I feel like it’s saved my life. Now, I couldn't imagine going through this experience without creating art out of it. It focused me as well as distracted me. I couldn't let the sadness take over.
There were a few other things that got me through it.  I don't remember how exactly, at some point, I started to eat a small amount of mushrooms here and there. It gave everything this purple, fuzzy, fluffy feeling. I would go to the doctor's office, and everybody would say things like,"You are in the best mood." I remember thinking, "I am dealing with it, I am making my art and I am going to win."  I was taking a small amount just to get through getting into an ambulette every morning and dealing with chemo.  It definitely helped.  It lightened up the intensity of it all.
When I went through radiation and chemo, I would go home at night and go to a bar. People would say, "Take care of your immune system." Fine, but you still have to live. You just can't stop doing everything that you know. I would have people come back to my place and play records, going off to this other land for the night because come next morning, I would be picked up by a van again. Then at night my friends would come back and hang out with me. Some of my friends were upset, but the fact that we had so much fun made everything fluffy.
So NEW BRAIN is not a sad tale. I want it to be an inspiring story. It's about how one person conquered a devastating disease. Or at least how one person coped during a horrific year. The images may be shocking to some, but my story is honest, raw, triumphant, and bizarre. When I started to put this together, I was excited and inspired, but now it's starting to feel distant. I look forward to making it all more distant! The headaches and side effects are endless and I wish I could put it all behind me. But more importantly, I made it. That’s what gives me the strength and pride to want to share my story.
Because of NEW BRAIN, I have been interviewed and touched lives by bringing awareness to cancer and creating amazing art.  I was a part of an art exhibit at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine that featured artistic expressions as a result of cancer.  This should be enough, but I still want the full vision of NEW BRAIN to have its life in a gallery. I looked at this body of work as if I was releasing the demons. Now, trying to turn this into a gallery show has become the demon!  I've been relentlessly shopping it around in a few cities, but nobody has picked it up yet. It's strange.  I would have thought people would've jumped at the chance because in one way or another, cancer has affected everyone. But I guess in this day and age, people aren't looking for a slice of reality. Or in the words of one Chelsea gallerist, "The cancer thing is done and you have to be dead for it to succeed."

09.25.2012

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