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Diagnosed with lymphoma, photographer turned lens on himself

Former S-R staffer produces story of cancer survival

At the beginning of his photojournalism career in Spokane, John Kaplan took a photo of a man dressed in a bunny costume on Easter Sunday. The man’s job was to entice customers into a doughnut shop.

Kaplan, then 23, followed the man into the break room, where he removed the bunny head to light up a smoke. He puffed wearily on the cigarette, his eyes a distant stare.

After working for The Spokesman- Review from 1983 to 1984, Kaplan left Spokane for bigger papers, eventually earning a Pulitzer Prize. His photos are famous for expressing the complex reality hidden beneath the surface of people’s lives – a sad bunny on a happy day, for instance.

Now a journalism professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Kaplan, 52, is in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His documentary of his cancer journey – titled “Not As I Pictured” – will air Tuesday at 7 p.m. on KSPS-7, Spokane Public Television. (A second showing is scheduled for Oct. 2 at 1 p.m.)

Cancer stories often become journalism clichés, Kaplan said in a recent phone interview from Florida: Brave person battles bad disease. Brave person triumphs.

Kaplan’s story follows the cliché. He fought bravely. So far, he’s winning.

But the film also shows cancer’s more complicated reality. It is very funny in places, for instance.

Kaplan said: “You might think, ‘Why would I want to watch another sick person for 56 minutes?’ But when people watch it, it’s life-affirming.”

Life as he pictured it

Before the day three years ago when a scan for a hernia revealed cancerous tumors, Kaplan lived a picture-perfect life:

An award-winning photojournalism career, followed by a fulfilling college professorship. A kind, smart and beautiful wife, Li Ren-Kaplan, and two young children, a girl and a boy.

Beneath the surface, though, cancer flowed through the genes on his father’s side. His grandmother died of leukemia at 39. His Uncle George died at 57 of multiple myeloma. His Aunt Millie died in her early 50s after a six-year cancer battle.

His father beat prostate cancer in his 60s but died 22 years later of multiple myeloma.

Kaplan started working on the film in the summer of 2008, during chemotherapy.

“It began as a way to cope with my fear,” he said. “Then I realized that if I were to go into remission, the pictures I was making could truly help others.”

Chemo stole Kaplan’s curly dark hair, and one day he announced to his children that he was getting a summer haircut.

His film combines video with powerful still photos; the haircut scene is done entirely in stills, heightening Kaplan’s physical transformation that day.

In a final haircut scene, startled by his bald head, Kaplan cups his eyes with his hands, hiding tears from his children. He believed he looked like Shrek, the bald ogre of animated film fame.

Not how he had ever pictured himself before.

The no-holds-barred men

In 1992, while working in Pittsburgh as a special projects correspondent for Block newspapers, Kaplan won the Pulitzer Prize for photos of seven 21-year-olds.

One photo shows the shaved head of Phil Anselmo, then the singer in the heavy metal band Pantera. Tattooed onto the side of Anselmo’s bare head was the word “Strength.”

While Kaplan was undergoing cancer treatments in 2008, he received an email from a Detroit school teacher, requesting a print of the photo.

The teacher’s brother, a young firefighter, had a seizure at work. Doctors discovered a brain tumor, and as the firefighter recovered from surgery he posted on his wall a photocopy of Kaplan’s “Strength” portrait.

The firefighter was a huge Anselmo fan. The photo gave him hope.

In November 2008, Kaplan, who had just found out he was in remission, flew to Detroit to surprise the firefighter and his brother with the framed photo – carried into their home by Anselmo.

The Detroit scene in Kaplan’s film captures every message he hopes people take away from “Not As I Pictured.”

Cancer is a great leveler: About 45 percent of all men, and 38 percent of all women, will develop an invasive cancer over a lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. The disease does not discriminate by age, class, gender or ethnicity. It also doesn’t kill all its victims.

“Those six letters – c-a-n-c-e-r – cut like a knife,” Kaplan said. “But so many cancers today are not just treatable but beatable.”

Cancer is a great clarifier: Kaplan didn’t hesitate when asked by the firefighter’s brother for a print of the “Strength” photo.

“Anytime you can be part of making something special happen for somebody, that’s what life is all about,” he said.

And though the film doesn’t shy away from cancer’s horrible happenings – you can “feel” Kaplan’s nausea in powerful photos of him sitting by the toilet – the joy surfaces throughout, too.

At the end of the Detroit scene, the firefighter, schoolteacher, photojournalist and rock star embrace.

“This was a joy,” Anselmo tells the others in a gravelly voice. “I’m no-holds-barred, man. I speak the truth.”

10,000 free copies

Kaplan’s movie is showing this fall on more than 100 PBS stations.

“Not As I Pictured” has a website, a Facebook page and an educational tie-in with the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The American Cancer Society is one of the film’s underwriters.

Anyone who has been touched by cancer can get a free copy of the film, no strings attached.

“Even the shipping is free,” Kaplan said.

So far, Kaplan has given away nearly half of the 10,000 free copies. If he runs out, he hopes to raise the money to give out some more.

Kaplan hasn’t returned to Spokane since he left nearly 30 years ago, and he wondered about a few things.

Does that bar on Division Street still sell his favorite “wine chicken”? (Yes, Red Lion BBQ and Pub is still in business.)

Has the entire strip between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene filled in with houses and businesses? (Not yet.)

In Spokane, Kaplan was known for his competitive drive and desire to stretch the boundaries of photojournalism.

He worked with gifted photojournalists that year in Spokane. Two later died tragically.

Kit King drowned while fishing on the Snake River in November 1991. And Jimi Lott, who left Spokane for the Seattle Times in 1984, killed himself in 2005.

Kaplan mourns them still, especially the loss of their talents.

He said he teaches his journalism students his philosophy of photojournalism, honed early in his career in Spokane. Photographers need to be tough and tenacious but also show “lots of heart,” he said.

Kaplan is marketing “Not As I Pictured” with that same tough tenacity and lots of heart. He wants to stretch the boundaries for the film, including offering it to medical schools for use in the classroom.

He said, with much joy in his voice: “I feel like we’re just getting started!”

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