Quiet Images of a Mother’s Struggle with Cancer

Named after her mother’s favourite flower, Tulip by Celine Marchbank is a deeply emotional work documenting her mother battling through chemotherapy

“I like the fact that it’s very delicate,” says Celine Marchbank, 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.”

Most of the photographs featured in the book were taken at her mother’s home. Whilst studying for her MA in Photojournalism at the London College of Communication, Marchbank was also a full-time carer. There are subtle motifs in many of the images, namely the striped decor of the interiors, the luminous blue aluminium tray, Frank, the ginger cat, half drunk cups of milky tea.

“She hated tea,” says Marchbank. “I’d always ask if she wanted a cup and she’d say ‘Oh, I’ll have half a cup’. She’d always make an effort to drink it with me and then put it back. So there are quite a few pictures there of half drunk cups of tea. “It’s funny, I never used to drink coffee and she was a massive coffee fan,” says Marchbank sipping on a cappuccino. “It’s only since she died that I’ve started drinking coffee.”

Marchbank explains the project started as a blog that she wrote to help her come to terms with what was going on. It was the first time she had published anything, let alone something so incredibly personal. Many of her recordings now provide evocative captions for some of the less-obvious compositions. One caption accompanying an image of a large brown stain of spilt coffee on white bed sheets reveals that the photographer was ashamed to capture this moment.

“I suppose it was because I was showing her vulnerability,” says Marchbank. “She was annoyed and went out to get a cloth. Really, I should have gone to get the cloth and clean it and let her sit there, but instead I took a picture. I felt like the project was becoming more important than looking after her, and it made me feel uncomfortable.” 

Marchbank’s mother passed away in October 2010. One of the final pages shows an obituary written about the esteemed ex-chef in The Guardian. The caption reads, ‘Breakfast with mum’. “My brother’s Brylcreem is in the corner!” says Marchbank. “I suppose I should have taken that out but I don’t set up my shots. I don’t like that.”

Marchbank’s mother never saw the photographs documenting that year. Indeed, it was only last year that the photographer felt ready to share the series with the broader public after five years of grieving. You go from feeling like a really small child to an adult, you feel like you have to grow up,” says the photographer. There’s one on my bookshelf at home. It is quite strange looking over and seeing your name there,”Marchbank smiles. “My mum would have liked it.”

Published by Dewi Lewis, the book cloth-bound book is available to buy online here.

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.