I had my foot amputated yesterday morning. I wrote this a couple weeks ago knowing that my head might not be in the space to do so in the days after the surgery, so I can’t tell you how it went just yet, or how I’m feeling about it all, but I can bring you up to date. I don’t often write so personally, and when I do it’s about photography. But over the years I’ve been told that I don’t only write about photography, but about life. This one’s about life.
As so many of you know, I took a fall while trying to make a photograph in Italy 12 years ago. The fall shattered my feet, broke my pelvis, and bruised my ego. But it was April and already by that point in the year three other people had fallen from the same place and none of them survived so that accident also re-calibrated my gratitude. I spent 40 nights in hospital, among them some of the longest nights of my life, filled with fear. I cried myself to sleep most nights, worried I’d never walk again. Worried my career was over. I was so, so lucky to be alive, but what if I could never again experience or photograph the things that made my life so rich and meaningful?
Months later I rolled my wheelchair into a physical rehab centre and after 4 weeks I walked out with a cane. My discharge date was set not by my doctor or physiotherapist but my travel agent: I was due in Laos and Cambodia for a workshop, and after that I had a boat to catch for Antarctica. I was a little wobbly, but I was walking, still carrying a camera to beautiful places, but this time more grateful, and taking it all a little less for granted.
On the night I had my accident I was taken to a hospital in Tuscany and eventually told I would never walk the same way again. This haunted me, and proved to be true. As the years have gone by we tried revision surgeries and eventually my surgeon fused my ankle and told me that for now this was as good as I could expect things to be. At one point a few years ago I asked about amputation and a prosthesis and she said yes, some people choose to do that but I don’t think she thought it was the right time for that conversation.
A year ago I was tired of “as good as it gets”. The pain was getting worse, the mobility was more and more limited. I had conversations with prosthetists and surgeons and all of them said a good prosthesis could give me my once active life back. They all agreed that amputation was not only one way forward but a strong option. The alternatives weren’t good and when my own surgeon said she would choose amputation over the other options, I asked her to remove my foot.
That makes it sound so matter of fact but the months leading up to this surgery have not been easy. I’ve lost sleep. I’ve never second-guessed myself so much. I’ve been distracted and foggy. I’ve worried about the complications and the phantom pain and what it’s going to be like to drive with a prosthesis, or do everyday things like taking a shower. I’ve worried about my career and my ability to put food on the table while I recover.
Unexpectedly, I’ve also worried about how I would tell you. When I was in hospital 12 years ago it was you who got me through it with your relentless encouragement and cheerleading. Total strangers sent me flowers. Some sent me books and DVDs. One day the nurse walked in with a confused look on her face and a cordless phone. “There’s an Art Wolfe on the phone for you,” she said, clearly unimpressed with her new role as my receptionist. Art, long one of my greatest heroes, had called to tell me not to give up, to keep fighting. I guess what I’m saying is you helped me get through this the first time—more than you can ever know—and it’s a little embarrassing to have to tell you I’m back here again.
I’ve re-written this so many times. It’s not an easy conversation to have. Amputation is a scary word. A couple months ago I ordered some crutches and when the Fed Ex driver dropped them off she said, “I hope no one needs these.” Without thinking I told her I was getting my foot amputated and her eyes filled with tears, and I had to later tell Cynthia I had broken our Fed Ex lady. I have struggled to find a graceful way to talk about this, and that’s part of the reason I’m telling you now, after the fact. I just didn’t know how to bring it up.
But there’s more. My surgical dates have changed a couple times, and that’s been a difficult mental and emotional rollercoaster. I just didn’t want to amplify that by announcing this and then jerking everyone around with date changes. And this is all just scary as shit and I wanted the freedom to chicken out, and avoid having to make my cowardice a matter of public record. And on top of that I was finding this all difficult and surreal and the thought of thousands of voices chiming in on my decision was truly overwhelming. Thousands of beautiful, caring, wonderful voices, but thousands all the same and the thought of it felt too much for me to handle ahead of time.
So, that brings us to now. As I head into this I’m nervous (an understatement). My family is nervous (also an understatement, maybe more so). But I’m also hopeful. I’m hopeful that once I’ve recovered and have my prosthetic leg I can hike again, that I can travel again and travel further and with less pain. I’m hopeful that this might deepen my understanding of myself and what it means to live a courageous and creative life. But right now, mostly I’m frightened. I know it’s only a foot, and it’s only getting in the way these days but I’m losing a part of myself and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
I’ll update you when the fog clears and we know how the surgery went, but I’ve been told that it’ll take at least six weeks to get into an initial prosthesis for some first tentative steps. That seems astonishingly fast to me. Until then I’ve got something for you, and a request.
3 New Monographs + 18 Desktop Wallpapers
Pay What You Want
Asking for help is hard, so while I was anticipating all this I had some time to make something for you in the hopes that it would inspire you, and that it might also be a way for me to get a leg up (ha! See what I did there?) on covering the cost my new prosthesis, as well as getting me through this downtime while I’m not working and teaching in other ways. So I’ve put together 3 new monographs of my work, including my most recent series from Kenya that is mostly unpublished until now, and a beautiful new collection of desktop wallpapers in hopes that they inspire you towards adventures of your own.
My new monographs, released today are:
All 3 digital monographs, bundled with my 2023 Wallpaper Collection, are yours for any amount you choose. I’ve never done a Pay What You Want option but this gives me a chance to offer something beautiful to you, something I hope will inspire you, and for you to be a continued part of my recovery in any way you choose. If you’d like to help me get back on my feet, this is a way you can do that. When you follow this link and choose to download this bundle, you’ll see that the price is set to $20 (we had to put something there) but you can change that to anything you like. No matter what you choose, I am so grateful for your support of me and my work.
Drop Me a Note.
The next week is going to be a lonely one in hospital and I know many of you are going to want to reach out. I would love to hear from you! But can I ask you a favour? Please leave a comment on my blog (you can do that anytime here) rather than hitting reply to this email. My emails go to Cynthia and this is a heavy load for her right now. I’ve given her permission to just ignore the emails for a while. Emails also demand replies in a way that blog comments don’t, and as you might imagine, we’re just not sure what the coming days look like in terms of our time and emotional energy. I would love to hear from you. I can’t put into words how much your support means to me, please feel free to fill the comments on my blog here. I’ll read every one of them. But I suspect I could also be heavily drugged for a while, so if the best—or the only—reply I can muster is a 👍 or a 😘 or even a 🙏, then I hope you’ll understand.
In the coming days, once I can manage the pain on my own, and assuming there are no complications, they should send me home. We’ll head back to Vancouver Island and wait for things to heal up before beginning the long journey of fitting and learning to live with a prosthesis. As someone who watched The Six-Million Dollar Man as a kid I admit I might have unreasonable expectations for my new bionic leg. I’ve got months to go before anything remotely normal, I think, but you know where to find me until then. For almost 12 years you’ve been the reason I write what I write and create what I do, and that won’t stop. The moment I can be back to writing and reminding you that you’re not alone on this wonderful creative journey, I will. Thank you for your love.
To get the bundle of my new monographs and the 2023 wallpaper collection, click this link. This collection is yours for whatever you choose to pay. I’ve always tried to inspire you in my teaching, to light a fire rather than just filling a bucket. I created these in hopes of continuing to do that for you while I’m waiting to get back on my feet again.
For the Love of the Photograph,