Winnipeg fine art photographer and retired architect David Firman and his wife, Gail Perry, a retired lawyer and freelance writer, are walkers. Depending on the time it takes to get from point A to point B, they will always prefer to walk instead of getting into the car and driving to their destination.
Their love of walking has led to pilgrimages in Japan, Ireland, and the Czech Republic and to participating in the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
This year, the couple embarked on a pilgrimage much closer to home.
In January, Perry was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It was a shock," Firman says of that memory. "But it was slow-burn shock in a way because we had just come back from doing a long walk in Japan. Gail announced that after we got back she had found a lump.
"At that point, we were hoping it was benign. Slowly, you go from appointment to appointment, and it sort of just builds and builds. It really is a slow build to the point where all of the sudden, you’re consumed in it."
After a lumpectomy and another surgery to ensure clear margins around the location of the lump, the plan for Perry, as recommended by her oncologists, was to go through four cycles of chemotherapy, then 16 rounds of radiation.
"But after the first treatment, the rest of the treatments were cancelled due to the results from a clinical trial called Phase III TAILORx released back in June," says Perry. "The study identified a subgroup of breast cancer patients who could be spared chemotherapy treatments."
She was identified as part of that subgroup.
Accompanying Perry to her appointments and procedures in preparation for chemotherapy and radiation gave Firman an idea for his current photographic walk project, Ways to Walk, an exploration of the world from the intimate perspective of a sidewalk or a trail.
"While we were walking (to CancerCare Manitoba), it occurred to me that this would be another version of a walk, another reason for a walk," says Firman. "We started talking about it and batted ideas back and forth and came up with the idea as we were going back and forth to CancerCare.
"Gail was just starting to do chemotherapy at that point and we also knew she was going have to do radiation. We decided that we were going to walk between here and CancerCare. It’s about a 50-minute walk, which was well within our wheelhouse. That’s easy for us to do. So, we thought we’d do that and walk back everyday for these appointments and see how it went. If Gail could manage it, then we would just continue doing that. It worked out pretty well. It just evolved into a project as a result of (the cancer diagnosis)."
This project became Navigating Hope. The series can be found on his blogsite, www.walkclickmake.com, along with his previous walk projects — Night Atlas, Bridge of Light, Ramen Rambles and Walking Styxx, all of which were turned into books Firman self-published through Blurb Books.
Images from Walking Styxx are currently part of the Flash Photographic Festival and can be seen at the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation this month.
"David’s photographs reflect our lives," says Perry. "David did ask if I would be OK with it. He did an introductory essay (for the series), I did a final essay… I had no problem being candid about what happened."
Perry’s one and only chemotherapy treatment was on May 24. It was also the day Firman started chronicling their walks from their Wolseley-area home to CancerCare Manitoba.
He also chronicled their visits to Gimli, Winnipeg Beach and Minneapolis before Perry’s radiation treatments began on July 5.
And he was there for her last day of radiation where she celebrated by ringing a bell. This is a tradition among cancer radiation treatment facilities where immediately after the last radiation session, the patient is invited to ring a bell symbolizing the end of that treatment and the return to living one’s life anew.
"This wasn’t doing anything extraordinary from our point of view," Perry says of the walks. "And we really didn’t know what to expect and I think myself lucky that I felt well enough… to walk every day."
For anyone who has dealt with an illness or disease, it tends to take over the lives of the people affected by it. There is always the on-going battle to maintain a level of normalcy during a time like this. For Firman and Perry, their daily walks to and from CancerCare was their way of taking some control over the disease.
They chose to have Perry’s radiation appointments first thing in the morning between 8 to 8:30 a.m., which provided cooler temperatures as the summer progressed and typically beautiful morning light for Firman’s images. With an hour-long walk each direction, there was always something to take in along their journey, such as school playgrounds, children having recess and appreciating the architecture of older schools like Daniel McIntyre and Isaac Brock.
"All the trees were starting to blossom, more or less. Everybody (was) out there cutting their lawns. Everybody (was) going about their daily lives and you feel like a part of that, too," says Firman.
Walking has always been a contemplative, positive exercise for the couple.
"It always keeps us in a very positive frame of mind as we (went) through this," says Firman.
"That’s the idea of Navigating Hope. We’re treading the line between potential despair at one end, and joy at the other. You’re trying to weave your way through that space. Trying to keep as positive, as joyful as possible. Walking has been our way of dealing. I think it’s a good way of dealing with it too because it’s something that pretty much anybody can do."
"Walking is therapeutic because it’s a physical exercise but it’s also slow enough that it corresponds with your thought process," adds Perry.
"So, you can be very contemplative during the walk. Taking, more or less, the same route. Sometimes, we varied it a bit. You could see with the change of the season and over the course of two months, you can watch the same garden and see how it changes, houses went up for sale and they were sold or they weren’t sold. You have favourite buildings along the way and you kind of see funny things and some of them are reflected in David’s photos. Things that are always different but always the same as you do the walk."
The couple are philosophical about their experience with cancer and its pervasive presence.
"You look around you, there are so many people around you who get cancer and you wonder how lucky can we be to have escaped this. And you find out maybe not so much," says Firman.
"Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. You just don’t know when it’s going to happen to you and what face it’s going to have. It’s part of our acceptance," adds Perry.
"In a way, it’s almost like a shared disease between the two of us. It’s one life, really," says Firman. "She gets cancer, so you really feel you’re a part of that life."
There is an upside from their walks to CancerCare Manitoba.
"We have favourite walks that we do," says Perry. "The route from here to the hospital is actually a favourite route because there’s a destination. There’s a coffee shop at the end. You can have a coffee and come home. You’ve put in your walk for the day."
This project, as with all of Firman’s other walk projects, appears originally on his blog, which is a combination of his writing and images. If he thinks the project is good enough to turn into a book, such as Walking Styxx or Ramen Rambles, there will be a Navigating Hope book as well. The images were made with an iPhone and the GPS information is embedded in the images, which he uses to make a map that would be included in a future book.
"I always try to have a little map or graphic of some sort. In this case, it’ll probably just be little points where we stopped to take a picture along the way, mostly in Winnipeg. It’ll be like this little constellation of points. Perhaps, in the future, there might even be a Flash Photo Festival show based on Navigating Hope."