Ivan Lo, a humanitarian photographer, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007.
Just two months ago, he was back in Afghanistan with a cane under his arm, popping medication in order to continue taking pictures.
Ivan was just 23 when he was diagnosed with Chronic Eosinophilic Leukemia after returning from a trip to Afghanistan, where he was doing freelance photography for an non-governmental organization, or NGO.
Shocked by his physical appearance upon returning to the states, Ivan’s mother told him to get a blood test immediately.
“When she looked at me, she said, ‘Ivan, you look like a ghost.’ She was terrified,” he said.
His diagnosis was grim. On top of the leukemia, Ivan’s body was also riddled with parasites that he had contracted during his travels. His case was so rare, his doctor told him it was like winning the lottery.
Ivan was placed on a cancer pill called Gleevec, and his body responded well. The bad news was that his doctor recommended he stop traveling outside the U.S.
“At that point I went into a really deep depression. Just anger. Anger at myself, anger at God, anger at whatever,” he said. “The doctors would give me these painkillers and I’d fall asleep and then I’d wake up to my bones shattering again. It was so painful.”
Eventually, his body started to adjust to the drugs and the pain faded.
While he did receive public aid, Ivan had no health insurance at the time he was diagnosed. One doctor gave him free chiropractic services after hearing about his situation.
Dr. Chaomei Guo continues to see Ivan and still refuses to charge him.
“He’s very young and I don’t want to see him in pain,” she said. “For those kind of kids, as long as the patient has financial difficulties, I help them and I don’t let them pay.”
In the beginning, Guo said Ivan was almost crippled with pain.
“He did not talk to me very much in the beginning,” she said. “He’s getting better. His emotion, compared to the beginning, has improved.”
Ivan comes from a family of photographers. His father dabbled in picture taking and his brother, Daniel, does professional freelance photography for motorcycle racing events.
Daniel, 33, said he thinks he and his brother’s passion for photography may have stemmed from a family trip taken to China when they were younger.
“I think just for the sake of documenting a place I’d never been to, I bought a camera and just kind of went from there,” he said.
But Ivan, he said, has always been seriously committed to picture taking.
“He just kind of took off on me,” Daniel said. “He was a lot more into it.”
When he found out about Ivan’s leukemia, Daniel said he went through major denial.
“What I recall from that time is very fragmented,” he said. “It seemed like we were getting a different diagnosis every week.”
Since Ivan has returned to countries like Afghanistan, his brother said he worries about his health.
“Definitely a little bit of concern there, but I think knowing that his illness is under control helps,” he said. “It’s impossible to tell him not to go and this is what makes him tick, so I’m all for it.”
Since returning back to Afghanistan, Ivan said he is inspired by the courage of the Afghan people.
“Afghans are great survivors. They’re very resilient,” he said. “I see these people living there, pretty much under the threat of constant danger, and they’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever met.”
He said there are now schools for the deaf in Kabul, something unheard of when the Taliban was in power. According to the U.S. Agency of International Development, one in five Afghan households contain at least one disabled person. The Afghan government estimates that anywhere from 800,000 to 2 million people are living in the country with a disability.
Since he started walking with a cane, Ivan said he feels a different kind of connection to his disabled subjects.
“When I take photos of them, I can think to myself, ‘Yeah, I’ve tasted a little bit of what they must be going through,’ and I feel like that sort of takes the photos to another level,” he said.