It was December. Looking out the window of her doctor’s office after a biopsy, Anna Rathkopf saw the first snow of the year falling. The following day at work she got the phone call: Yes, you have breast cancer. It would be another long week before Anna and her husband, Jordan, would find out the kind of cancer it was and how pernicious. Of course, the specific brand of cancer she had held little meaning; what she needed to wrap her head around is what her life would look like in the months ahead, and what it would mean for the Rathkopfs’ 2-and-a-half-year-old son. More to the point, were there months ahead?

For the Rathkopfs, yes; so far, more than 24 of them, and many more to come. But those first 12 months after Anna’s diagnosis of the aggressive HER2 cancer were horrendous. Treatment included a year of chemotherapy, radiology, and other targeted infusions that, among all the other devastating side effects, would result in infertility. They had always envisioned having a second child, but treatment could not be put off.

Jordan had been through cancer dread before as a child: His mother had had breast cancer. She was the first one Anna called after hearing her diagnosis — but she was still there to call so many years later. Telling Jordan was just so hard. Somehow Anna and he had to keep it together for the sake of their son. How could they manage to stay sane and do that? Another snow brought Anna an answer.

documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography

“I came to Jordan and told him we have our project: I want to document all of it.”

Originally from Prague, Czech Republic, Anna was and continues to be a family and lifestyle photographer. She met her husband in Prague 13 years ago. Jordan is an editorial and lifestyle photographer. For the last 11 years, the family has been living in Brooklyn, New York, where Jordan was born and raised. Photography was the key to moving forward.

“I remember the very next morning after I woke up it was snowing,” says Anna. “I always loved snow, the peacefulness and the beauty of the muffled sounds and the stark contrast of the white to any colors. That morning I came to Jordan and told him we have our project. I told him I wanted to document all of it.”

The results of that project would reveal how each of the Rathkopfs dealt with the grueling regimen of treatment. One of the hardest parts emotionally was coping with the reciprocal pain of knowing how hard it must be for each other.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Rathkopfs’ project is that, though they were both documenting the experience, their points of view reflected their divergent emotional journeys, and in turn, how each served to help the other both process and deal with the experience, separately and together. — Leslie Hunt

documenting cancer treatment through photography
Photographing cancer, finding strength through documentary photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography

Q: What one photo from the project sums up the journey for you?

ANNA: My image of Jordan in his mother’s wig. I remember that day so clearly. I remember how Jordan’s mom found a bag of her wigs and how much she and my father-in-law tried to cheer me up. We were laughing so hard at Jordan and his dad trying on the wigs, but even though Jordan is making funny faces his eyes are just so sad.

JORDAN: The image of Anna and Jesse kissing in the snowstorm in the middle of a city street stays with me. Just the love between the two people I love the most, and the snow coming down on them feels for me like it could have been a dream. I remember when taking the photo just knowing that would be a photo I would always look back at and remember the love I felt for my life and family.

documenting cancer treatment through photography
Photographing cancer, finding strength through documentary photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography

Q: What’s your advice for photographers documenting deeply personal projects?

ANNA: I believe storytelling is the most important thing to consider for your project, so choose one you’re very interested in because you are going to spend a lot of time with it. Then go through your photos and cut a lot of them out. That cut is difficult because you feel those images are so important to you, but the problem is that others might not feel strongly about it. We had friends and family and each other to consult, but it was still the hardest thing do.

JORDAN: Capture what matters to you most. Maybe it’s a person or a place, or an issue. But if it means a lot to you, then the images will exist for others and for yourself. Looking back at these photos, the ones that still have the most meaning for me are the ones that are the most raw and least thought out.

documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography

“This is my life; this is what’s happening to me.”

Photographing cancer, finding strength through documentary photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
Photographing cancer, finding strength through documentary photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography

Q: What were the most surprising moments you found in each other’s images?

ANNA: I found out what it looked like to other people. I was in it, so for me, it almost seems it was easier… I mean the treatment and surgery. I knew how I felt. I knew what it was when I was on the inside of feeling I’ll never get up, so exhausted and nauseous. I can see from Jordan’s images his helplessness because he cannot help me and the same goes once I see images of my mum or Jordan’s parents.

JORDAN: The photos that surprised me most were Anna’s self-portraits. It was a reminder to me that even though we went through this experience together, we also had to face it alone in our own ways. Before Anna was diagnosed, she never took self-portraits. I asked her what made her want to do self-portraits, and she told me that she does not feel like the same person anymore when she sees herself in photos.

documenting cancer treatment through photography
Photographing cancer, finding strength through documentary photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting difficult times

“I didn’t want to feel it; I picked up a camera because I wanted to turn it into a story.”

documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
Photographing cancer, finding strength through documentary photography
Photographing cancer, finding strength through documentary photography
documenting cancer treatment through photography
Documenting difficult times
Documenting difficult times

Anna is a family and lifestyle photographer originally from Prague, Czech Republic. She met her husband Jordan in Prague 13 years ago and 11 years ago they moved to Brooklyn, New York. Her work is her passion but she also loves reading, traveling and meeting new people. Her family is her life anchor.

Jordan is an editorial and lifestyle photographer born, raised and based in Brooklyn. In addition to photography his passions include playing music, working with nonprofits and socially responsible businesses, traveling and spending time with his family. Visit them at rathkopfphotography.com, brightfamilyphotography.com and jordanrathkopf.com

Photos by Anna and Jordan Rathkopf

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Click Magazine. Subscribe here for more great photography stories.

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