Photographer documents cancer survival

by Samantha Payne

An award-winning photographer and cancer survivor returns to Spokane after about 28 years to present his documentary, “Not as I Pictured.”

The documentary is a self-portrait of a struggle against cancer and will be presented at Whitworth on Thursday, March 15 at 7 p.m. in the Robinson Teaching Theatre.

John Kaplan is a professor of journalism at the University of Florida and has won many awards for his photography, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Press Photographer of the Year.

Kaplan’s career has had many highs, including shooting the lead singer of Pantera, Phil Anselmo, for part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning feature, “21,” and having his own photo taken by Mother Teresa.

“I was kind of running on adrenaline at the time,” Kaplan said. “I mean, who wouldn’t be in awe of meeting a future saint?”

At the age of 48, Kaplan, who is a husband and father of two, was diagnosed with Lymphoma. He decided to turn the camera on himself, and he is now sharing his fight against cancer with the world in the hope of helping others.

“I felt that by sharing my family’s experience, in a small way we could help others, too,” Kaplan said. “I hope the viewers will realize that so many cancers today are not only treatable but beatable.”

The documentary shows some of Kaplan’s most painful and personal moments, which he said he doesn’t find too hard to look back over.

“You know what? I’m sort of a ‘forge the path’ kind of guy, and I don’t look back in life with regrets,” Kaplan said. “Even with something as scary as a life-threatening illness, I would never look back with regret.”

Kaplan plans to help as many people as he can through his documentary and hopes his work will help health care professionals be more empathetic, he said.

“This project is really just the very beginning,” Kaplan said. “It’s on many levels: level one is to get it in the hands of as many families touched by cancer as possible, and we are now beginning a new phase which is to have this film used in medical education.”

Kaplan is giving away 10,000 copies of “Not as I Pictured” to people affected by cancer because he said he wants to give something back to all the people who helped him.

“My family and I received so much unexpected help along the way and we want to do what we can to help others,” Kaplan said. “It’s a continuing part of my healing and it’s a great feeling to know that my family’s experience is also helping others to cope and get new courage.”

Major recording artists such as Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Chris Martin of Coldplay and David Bowie donated their music to the documentary after learning what it was about. The soundtrack has gone on to win Best Soundtrack at the 2010 Maverick Movie Awards, and the ADDY Best of Show for Public Service.

Kaplan’s first job out of college was at The Spokesman-Review, where his protégé Brian Plonka, who is a fellow National Press Photographer of the Year, later worked. Plonka was mentored by Kaplan when he worked at the Pittsburgh Press in the 1980s.

“Right away he just took me under his wing,” Plonka said. “He’s one of the most sincere, giving people in the profession. You know, here’s a young kid, that really didn’t know too much, and he just worked with me. He’s one of the people that’s really guided me through my career and helped me be as successful as I was in the newspaper industry.”

Plonka said he admired Kaplan’s courage in documenting his illness.

“He really put himself out there because, as a photographer and photojournalist, you’re always looking to be in someone else’s life and show some of the most painful aspects of what they’re going through,” Plonka said. “He laid it all on the table; he photographed himself in the most hurtful moments and I think it was a very, very brave thing to do.”

To fans of Kaplan’s work and amateur photographers, Kaplan gave some advice.

“Have a heart, be passionate, really believe in telling stories of truth and empathy, and also just try not to fall into the trap of doing what everybody else is doing,” Kaplan said. “There are many under-reported stories for both reporters and photographers and they’re just crying to be done.”

Kaplan said he tells his students to do work that matters.

“You know, there’s so much more out there than gossip and celebrity titillation,” Kaplan said.

Plonka mirrored Kaplan’s advice.

“‘Have a lot of heart, have a lot of patience and show your work to as many people as you possibly can for feedback and criticism,” Plonka said. “It’s kind of hard to take criticism, but you have to seek out the people that are better than you and get their advice.”

“Not as I Pictured” shows a diverse range of emotions as cancer takes its toll on Kaplan’s life. However, perhaps the most affirming part of Kaplan’s story is  his family’s strength and positivity.

Throughout the documentary Kaplan displays a strong positive attitude and a sense of humor in the face of his life-threatening illness. He said he hopes his presentation at Whitworth will share the same atmosphere.

“It’s going to be an evening of a lot of help, positivity and hopefully lending just a little bit of courage when people need it most,” Kaplan said.

Contact Samantha Payne at

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