One day last February, Emilie Dalum was getting ready to go to lunch when her doctor called. “I was only dressed in my underwear,” she recalls, “when he told me I had lymphoma.” Emilie, a photographer, was 26 years old. Over the next four months, she documented her journey through chemotherapy, capturing the isolation and shock of cancer as well as her personal determination to reclaim her life. The resulting project, a photographic self-portrait titled ‘Emilie’, debuts April 6 at Listastofan.
“When I pointed the camera towards myself, I could examine my personal transformation in that period of time,” she says. Emilie’s long-held fascination with the intimate and unseen—our thoughts, feelings, circumstances, the ebb and flow of our lives—saturates her exhibit: she is shown stripped down, vulnerable, her body exposed. One close-up shot depicts a reddened circle, like a target, below her armpit, marking the location of one of her lymph nodes. Other images show yellow dye on her skin, an IV drip, her body in a CT scanner, a clump of her hair. ‘Emilie’ exposes the dichotomy between the sterility of cancer treatment and the chaos of cancer as a lived experience, when patients are made sick in order to heal.
“I tried to maintain a normal life, but I could not escape from the fact that I was a patient,” says Emilie. “I did become my illness. You cannot skip chemo; you have to surrender.”
The exhibit develops a conversation between the physical spaces of cancer—waiting rooms, clinics, hospital parking lots—and the mental spaces—loneliness, despair, resilience, fear. In one shot, Emilie stands in an attic, her head pressed against the far wall, with medical containers scattered at her feet and a portrait of Frida Kahlo on one side. She is trying to escape, but there is nowhere to escape to. Her body becomes a prison, a suffering thing, and thus evokes other corporeal traumas such as domestic violence or sexual assault. As Emilie put it: “You become a product. Your body is property.”
But, of course, ‘Emilie’ also speaks to the humanity that remains even as chemotherapy drugs course through one’s veins. In one shot, Emilie stares at the camera unflinching, as if daring viewers to stand up to their own monsters. Despite the needles, nausea, catheters and scans, Emilie still has agency in her life. This experience of cancer is hers alone, and in ‘Emilie’ she owns it completely.
“Undergoing cancer has a lot to do with confrontation,” she says. “You get closer to death somehow. When you’re young, you think you’re going to live forever—you get a lot of tattoos and piercings, you drink a lot, you smoke weed. But suddenly you have realised [you are going to die] because you have felt it on your own body.”
The journey that follows is a heavily emotional one: cancer is such a massive trial that “your whole mindset is changed” by it, Emilie says. Her self-portraits speak to a fracturing that is also an opening of oneself to the world. Seen in such a light, her photography is a radical act, because it challenges contemporary social taboos around emotions, death and illness.
After ten rounds of chemo, Emilie’s cancer is gone. “I am still finding my way back to life,” she says. Her photo series represents a memory—poignant, painful, and fundamental to understanding our own place in the world.
Emilie’s exhibit debuts on Thursday, April 6, from 18:00-20:00 at Listastofan. The gallery’s regular hours are Wednesday-Saturday, 13:00-17:00. ‘Emilie’ remains until Wednesday, April 19.
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!