Pulitzer Prize-winner and National Geographic photographer Jay Dickman grew up in Austin, Texas, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. In conjunction with the American Diabetes Association’s American Diabetes Month® efforts, Dickman created a visual narrative, A Day in the Life of Diabetes, which was on display in Washington D.C.’s Union Station Tuesday, November 13 through Wednesday, November 14. Dickman lost his brother-in-law to diabetes several years ago and has created this project, and donated his time, in his honor. To learn more about Dickman and his work, visit www.jaydickman.net. I had the opportunity to talk to Jay about his work and his connection to diabetes.
When did you become interested in art and photography? What attracted you to photography as a medium?
As a kid, I remember coming home from school and looking at Life magazine and National Geographic, not realizing what impact those publications were having on me. I now realize it was my first foray into the magic of loving visual narrative – the process of documentary photojournalism and storytelling.
When did you start taking pictures?
In high school, friends of mine had dirt motorbikes, but I couldn’t afford one. Instead, I carried my Kodak Instamatic to take photos of my friends, and I loved it The lady at the camera store where I had my prints done always encouraged me. She said, Well, look at those lovely pictures, think what you could do with this nicer camera! I convinced my dad to buy the nicer one for me as my Christmas gift, 140 bucks, and that was a lot of money at the time. I started shooting more and more and had no idea what I was doing. I was self taught, but loved the process of figuring things out. I started college as an English Lit major but soon discovered I liked the idea of visual narrative more. I would do anything just to pick up a camera, press the shutter, and capture a moment.
Tell me about being a Pulitzer Prize winner!
I was working with the Dallas Times Herald which had become a major newspaper, especially on the photographic side. They had opened a Central American bureau and asked if I wanted to do coverage on the war in El Salvador. I had experience with volatile situations, riots, where things are out of control, so I felt I could handle it. I spent a couple of months photographing the war, stretched out over an 18-month period (several separate trips). For that body of work, the paper nominated me for the Pulitzer. The day the prize was announced was a life-changing moment, I felt amazed; it was a huge moment. I thought about my parents, who had died some years before. My father was worried about me going into this business. He thought photographers were a bunch of weirdos who didn’t make a lot of money. I wished my parents were there to see what I had accomplished by following my passion and my heart.
What motivated you to create a visual narrative inspired by the theme A Day in the Life of Diabetes, for the American Diabetes Association?
I decided to do the Association shoot because I loved that premise, “A Day in the Life of Diabetes,” which ties back to my photojournalistic background. You’re spending time in an environment, trying to capture those moments. And that’s what I love about photography. My world of photography is completely about moment. Moment trumps all.
And the biggest inspiration for doing the narrative was my brother-in-law, Mike. He had type 1 diabetes. He died from complications from the condition. He was in a high stress business as an international attorney and didn’t monitor the disease as well as he should have. I realized I couldn’t ignore this had happened and that it was important for me to do this project, and I wanted to do it to honor Mike.
I understand that you photographed three individuals for your visual narrative. Tell me about them.
One young woman, Nadia, has type 2 diabetes. In talking to her, she said one of the benefits of this life-changing diagnosis was that she had to start taking better care of herself. She’s lost 50 pounds, which is astounding. She runs and watches her diet closely. I can’t imagine having to watch myself so diligently.
The second individual is a young girl, Estrella, just two years old, diagnosed just a year ago with type 1. She lives with her mother, Jessica, who owns a beauty salon. I was blown away by this little girl. Jessica would test little Estrella’s blood glucose and administer the injections, and all I could think was that she was only two. But Estrella would just sit there and cooperate. Plus, she was eating a snack – steamed broccoli and cauliflower – and enjoying it! I couldn’t believe that despite the challenges of diabetes, she was living such a beneficial lifestyle. That’s what impressed me. Instead of grabbing Doritos or Cheetos, she’s being raised to snack on vegetables. That’s lemonade out of lemons. She’s learning that this is part of her life, and she can manage it. It’s bittersweet.
Last, I photographed Steve, a cyclist, who has type 1. I looked at Steve and wished my brother-in-law had done what he does. He’s incredibly disciplined about monitoring his diet and physical shape. He rides extensive mileage on his bike and he’s taking good care of himself.
What do the photographs look like?
There are seven large panels based on the three individuals I photographed. The seven panels represent the seven days in a week.
Nadia, the young woman, works from home. She has dear friends and she’s working so hard on her health. Those were the two components I illustrated.
Estrella with her mom, Jessica – I wanted to show that they’re together. And that they work together.
And with Steve, I focused on his cycling.
Is there a unifying theme in the photographs of the three individuals?
I took the approach that I wanted to capture the energy of these people’s lives and that these people are all moving forward. Diabetes is not a debilitating experience for them. Their lives didn’t come to a screeching halt. Llife goes on. You deal with what you’ve been dealt.
You photographed these individuals in their daily lives. Did you photograph anyone testing his/her blood sugar, taking shots or pills, or using a pump?
I did that too. I wanted to show that the physical routine is part of their daily regimen. I spent several hours with each of them, and my hope was to be a fly on the wall, observing and photographing their lives. This is one thing a photojournalist is capable of doing. Going into a situation, knowing you’ve got hours ahead of you. People are cognizant of you being there. But then you become boring and they relax and go back to living their lives. That’s when you start looking for the moment. The quiet gentle moment or the big explosive moment, or something that defines what they’re going through in their daily lives. That’s the power of the day in the life process.
As an artist with diabetes, when I make diabetes-inspired art, I am creating as someone who is in the middle of it. As a photographer – an observer – a person without diabetes – you bring a different perspective. What stood out to you? What surprised you?
One word comes to mind: normalcy. Yes, you have to test, and take shots, but you have to live your life and it’s very normal. I’m amazed by that. I remember when Mike used to visit us in Colorado, he didn’t test regularly or watch his diet, and he landed up in the emergency room two or three times. We were always worried about him. And I saw the result of what happens when you don’t manage yourself well. But in doing this visual narrative, I learned that it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s what struck me during this photographic process. I think it heightened my personal awareness of diabetes.
What was the biggest challenge of creating a visual narrative about diabetes?
My biggest challenge, in general, is waiting until you capture that moment. The one that truly captures the daily experience. With Nadia, I got some nice illustrative pieces that I feel describe what she’s about. Same thing with little Estrella and Jessica. Steve, who should have been the easiest with the cycling, was the most difficult. I wanted to bring certain elements to that one. I wanted to show the power of what he was doing, and the energy of the landscape that brought about a positive component to his life. I had to go back to him about three times to get the moment that I liked.
How did your wife react to your diabetes-inspired visual narrative?
When I told Becky I was doing this project, she was immediately supportive and wanted me to go ahead with it. She was happy that I was doing this project to honor her late brother.
Do you plan to create more images inspired by diabetes?
Realistically, this is probably my big diabetes project. I am starting to realize that maybe this was a crossroads for me, and this all happened for a reason. I think part of your job as a human is to take something from any experience you go through. And to learn from it.
Artists and photographers are storytellers. What story does your visual narrative tell? What do you hope viewers will walk away with?
The big thing is: This is us. This is us in the human experience, whether we have diabetes or not. And back to that word normalcy. Here are these three very different people and who knows if their life paths would cross for any other reason. But here they have this common experience that has brought them together. When people look at this installation, I want them to see the normalcy of their lives, that this is us.
These folks are inspirational, leading vibrant lives.
Stay strong and keep on smiling.