I Should Have Shot That: Brendan McInerney’s Moldavian Cancer Patient

February 6, 2013 | Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s original series I Should Have Shot That! asks photographers about that one shot that got away. This week, Brendan McInerney talks about a moment in Moldovian hospice care he just couldn’t shoot. 

I’m in a town called Taraclia in Moldova of the former USSR. I’m currently an English teacher. It’s alright. It pays the bills. I live in a community of all Bulgarian people. During one of the wars between Turkey and Russia, a community moved away from Bulgaria after it had been taken over by the Turks and ended up in Taraclia. This year is the 200th anniversary of the town’s founding, so I’m covering the community and all the things they’ve been through.

I was working with a hospice organization. I don’t want to mention anyone’s names. You know? Medical stuff. I was going to make some posters, some advertisements for the organization. We had originally planned out the whole shoot —  they would talk with some of their patients and get permission and I would go up to where the patient lived and photograph them. We didn’t want to be too intrusive. They’re all hospice patients, so they’re already in a lot of pain and discomfort in general.

It was a busy morning. They had a lot going on. The patient had been in jail for awhile, I think. He may have gotten out because he had cancer. While had been in prison, his family had all moved away from Moldova. I think his daughter bought an apartment for him.

We showed up at the house. It was one of those traditional Soviet-style apartments. That all look really gray and kind of destitute on the outside and nicer on the inside. He was kind of surprised to see us. The nurse started talking with him. There was a guy who spoke English with me who asked, does he know that we’re coming? And just, “Oh, of course” and “Right there.”

We went in and she starts going about her business. I forget what he had, but in order to treat him, he had to be completely naked. So he just gets naked in front of us except for a blue robe and she starts helping him out. We’re sitting in the background. I was thinking, “This is really uncomfortable.” And he turns to me, and he says, “I’m really uncomfortable. I don’t think we should do this.” At that point, we left.

I wanted to shoot him while he was lying there, being treated in his apartment. It was an interesting setting. The apartment was empty except for his bed and his medicine. There’s something called a stoma bag. When your digestive track doesn’t work anymore, it’s a bag that’s attached to the side of your body and that’s where all your body’s waste comes out of. He was tall. He was really skinny. No, actually, it didn’t look like he was in pain, though I know that cancer patients usually take a lot of pain medicine. He had tattoos on his hands, the kind I think that people in prisons get. I didn’t really get a good look at them. I was trying to be respectful, but yeah.

It also would have showed how the doctor-patient relationship exists here, because I think that people don’t really take into consideration patients feelings as much as they would in America. I’m not saying that they don’t take those into consideration, but it’s just a different type of relationship. In American, there’s this whole idea that I might not even be allowed to do something like this. Not here.

I should have shot the photograph. I would have had the photograph and then I would’ve been able to decide if I was really showing too much, if I was being too intrusive, and if I was being too, I don’t know, explicit in showing what type of life he has at the moment.

You’d think that a lot of people, if you were to show up at their house unexpectedly asking if you could take photographs of them naked, they would be embarrassed, you know? But he seemed kind of resigned to the whole thing. He wasn’t phased by it at all.

I Should Have Shot That! is illustrated by James Noel Smith. Award-winning photographer and Peace Corps member Brendan McInerney is from New Jersey and is currently based in Moldova.

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