Kris Smith, an academic in the School of Creative Arts, combines his interests in photo media and working with young people for the interdisciplinary Growing Up

Portraying cancer through art

01 March 2014

Kris Smith, an academic in the School of Creative Arts, combines his interests in photo media and working with young people for the interdisciplinary Growing Up With Cancer Project.

Kris Smith potraying art through cancerA young woman is photographed in a shopping centre with an omnipresent purple helium balloon floating above her head. Another is pictured wading knee-deep through a river, the outline of a skeleton eerily superimposed over her body. Yet another image features the face of a youth, his identity obscured by blurring.

These powerful images are self-portraits created by young people who have been through cancer treatment.Their work is part of unique arts/health research project that uses the medium of photography to help them express their feelings about their experiences.

Kris Smith, a teaching academic in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle, is the sole arts academic working on the interdisciplinary Growing Up With Cancer Project, funded by the Australian Research Council. The multi-institution project, led by the Centre for Values and Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney, draws on the expertise of practitioners and researchers from health, medical and creative backgrounds.

For Smith, who is also a Fine Arts graduate of the University of Newcastle and an exhibiting artist, the project combines his interests in photo media and working with young people.

"I have done a lot of teaching and arts-related community work that have brought me into contact with adolescents," he explains.

"That was an essential qualification for this project because it involves a lot more than simply teaching artistic skills; it is about connecting with the participants and helping them draw out some very deep-seated emotions.

"It taps into the visual literacy of these young people and allows them to express through image-making things they find difficult to talk about."

Smith's role as project artist was to conduct workshops for adolescents and young adults who volunteered through the children's cancer support organisation CanTeen and the Children's Hospital at Westmead. He then followed up through phone or on Skype to help them complete their projects.

"Many had no skills in photography or visual arts but were intrigued by the concept of working with someone to create an image," he says. "Some had definite ideas about how they wanted to portray their cancer. Others had no idea but were open to exploring. So we gave them some basic skills and let them experiment."

"The results were very powerful and moving. The image of the girl in the river with bones over her body expresses a lot about her vulnerability and the unclear water suggests uncertainty. The ubiquitous purple balloon in another photo illustrates the all-pervading nature of cancer, forever hovering overhead."

The poignant artworks have been shown in a series of exhibitions since 2012 and the innovative research project has attracted international interest, with Smith having made several presentations to major conferences.

It is anticipated the project will contribute to better care outcomes for young people coping with cancer by improving feedback to medical professionals about the issues and emotions particular to patients in this age group.

Smith admits entering into the project with a combination of excitement and trepidation, fearing initially he may have been out of his depth, but emerged from the experience inspired by the possibilities of interdisciplinary research.

"It was a privilege to have the opportunity to help these wonderful young people construct the images they had in their minds and convey the messages they wanted to express," he says. "It is a great illustration of what can be achieved under the umbrella of arts/health."