John Kaplan has told stories all of his life. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Kaplan used photography to tell the story of a 21-year-old man who killed someone in self-defense. He used it to showcase the vanishing heritage of Tibetans in China. He also used it to show how he saw death at a close proximity, then walked away from it.
Kaplan, now a professor of photography, design and international journalism at the University of Florida, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2008 at the age of 48. After finding a hernia, he did his own research through Google, went to his doctor and got a CT scan. The hernia ended up being harmless – but the kidney tumor they found in the process was not.
Throughout his treatment and battle with cancer, he photographed himself as a coping mechanism. When he realized that his photos could benefit others in his situation, he decided this time he would tell his own story.
He also started taking videos, and the results became a documentary entitled “Not as I Pictured.” The documentary is currently being shown on PBS channels nationwide. It was shown in several film festivals and has earned 20 awards and nominations.
While working as a photojournalist, Kaplan was known for the intimacy of his work, and so when it came time to tell his own story, he saw it as a challenge. He always asked his subjects for their time and their trust and wondered if he could translate that intimacy when he was his own subject. He didn’t self-censor, showing even the scary and painful parts.
“When I looked my worst and felt my most vulnerable, I never had any doubts about showing that,” he said.
But his documentary isn’t all about pain and suffering. He included humorous and life-affirming moments.
“If you would have asked me three years ago if anything good could come out of a cancer diagnosis, I would have said no,” he said. “But so much has.”
So instead of selling the movie, he’s giving it away. It’s available to anyone who requests it, with free shipping as well, with the exception of those who need it for commercial purposes. It’s his way of giving back and showing people that there is hope.
Kaplan, who has now been in remission for three years, partnered with the American Society of Clinical Oncology and has shared his story at oncology conferences, hospitals, and cancer support centers all over the country. He is also working on future photographic exhibitions at the University of Delaware and the University of Missouri.
But for now, he’s focused on enjoying each day and living a healthy life with his wife and two kids.