Tulip: Quiet Images of a Mother's Struggle with Cancer

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“I like the fact that it’s very delicate,” says the London-based photographer as she leafs her newly published photobook. “The white cloth gets dirty and scuffs very easily, which says something about the book. It’s a delicate project.”
She closes it, passes it over the table, and returns her hands to her lap, nuzzling them into an oversized forest green jumper. A minute ago they were covered in the oil of a broken bike chain.
We are sitting at one of the clusters of rickety tables and chairs in a cafe in Dalston, just below her studios, which the photographer shares with a host of artists and architects. To our left, an empty stage; a roaring baby to the right.
Tulip, so-called after her mother’s favourite flower, is a collection of 84 images. Each is powerful, yet also quiet, disinterested in bombast. On each page, the eye is drawn to a detail, as subtle as a strand of hair or as prominent as a half-eaten plate of food. Together, the images gently develop into a deeply emotional narrative.

Marchbank’s images of her mother battling through chemotherapy are interspersed with double-page spreads of vibrant bouquets.
“Everyone who knew my mum knew how much she liked flowers,” says Marchbank as she flicks through the freshly printed pages. “I realised that they were what was telling the story. Starting as beautiful and new, then getting older, then decaying and then leaving.”

The project, however, was not originally intended as an artistic recording of memory. When the cancer was confirmed as terminal in early 2010, the narrative changed in direction.
“We [originally] spoke about photographing her treatment [at the hospital] and how, at the end, we would look back together at all this weird and unusual stuff that happened,” says Marchbank.

“When the doctors told her she had another brain tumour, I was standing there taking a picture of it. I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing?’
“I put the camera down and ran outside and burst into tears. After that I realised I didn’t want to look at pictures of her ill, of horrible situations in the hospital. Everything changed.”

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.