How Cancer Has Changed the Way I Photograph Concerts
Lindsey Best Andrew Youssef
[Editor's Note: Longtime concert photographer Andrew Youssef found out almost two years ago that he had Stage IV Colon Cancer. In that time, he has continued to shoot tons of music events for our sister paper OC Weekly on top of other freelance work and working a day job at a hospital, of all places. As he continues to fight for his life, this series allows him to tell his story in his own words.]
By Andrew Youssef
I knew my diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer would change my life in many ways. Looking back over the two years and two months since that fateful day, I appreciate life and the little things so much more. Some of the things that I did so effortlessly prior to my illness now require more planning and strategic sacrifice.
Taking medications was something I rarely did before I was sick. Nowadays, I carry around a blue pill bag that doubles as a small pharmacy for relieving a host of potential ailments. The medications I use the most are Lomotil (Diphenoxylate and Atropine) and Imodium (Loperamide), which battle the effects of diarrhea, which is a common side effect caused by my extensive chemotherapy regimen of Tarceva (Erlotinib), Erbitux (Cetuximab), Camptosar (Irinotectan) and Avastin (Bevacizumab).
The difficulty in dealing with chemotherapy is that, after all this time, you never know when the side effects will hit. Shooting concerts used to be so much easier, as I would eat before the concert without having to worry about stomach problems. I learned about not eating before concerts the hard way when I photographed Red Hot Chili Peppers in August of 2011.
When I parked my car, I suddenly felt the early signs of stomach problems. I immediately took a Lomotil in hopes of stemming the tide. As I walked up to the venue, I tried to convince myself that I would be OK and that the medicine would help. Unfortunately, It was too late. I had to run to the bathroom -- I was severely dehydrated and had to rest. Fortunately, a friend from the venue came to my rescue and provided me with some fluids to rehydrate.
I had an hour or so to rest up, and painfully opted to skip shooting the opening band Thelonius Monk in order to save what little strength I had left in the tank. I remember sitting down and leaning against a metal gate, trying to gather some energy, when a security guard on a bike stopped and asked if I was alright. I explained my situation, stating I would be OK as long as I rested up for a period of time.
There were so many photographers that they split us in two groups, and we had to shoot one and a half songs each. Normally this would be quite depressing, but in this case I was content, as I didn't know how long I could last. Once the Red Hot Chili Peppers hit the stage, a boost of adrenaline surged through my veins, propelling me through the one and a half songs.
Some of my photographer friends complemented me on my set of photos from the show, but honestly I don't remember even taking them -- I was so scared and preoccupied about making it home to rest in my chair. Making it home was its own challenge, but I managed to complete the task and stay up a few extra hours to turn in the photos and make my deadline.
The valuable lesson I learned from this show was to try to eat a minimum of three hours before a show, and immediately at the conclusion. Unfortunately, this would be dangerous if I did it at a festival, so I preemptively medicate with Lomotil and Imodium for events like Coachella and all-day festivals. This lesson also taught me to carry extra medication with me into the concert, just as a back-up.
I've managed to shoot over 200 concerts since my initial diagnosis, and in nearly every case I can remember a certain detail of whether I photographed a band after getting chemotherapy or if I was feeling sick. While I may be at a disadvantage compared to the other healthy photographers, I try to use it as motivation to dig deeper and take the best pictures possible. Cancer may have changed my preparation for shooting shows, but it will never break my resolve.