In photos: A burlesque guide to making it through chemo

Life as Laboratory
Life as Laboratory

Nisha Sondhe lives in Brooklyn but if you look for her there, you may not find her. Nisha is a rover, a professional photographer with the heart of a gypsy. The love that she feels for the places that she visits is echoed in her work—in the images of chiseled stone and sloping snow in Iceland, lavish purple sunsets amid green hills in Scotland, a child standing alone at the end of the hall at a charity ward in Bangalore, India.

A boy at a charity hospital in Bangalore, India. (Nisha Sondhe)

Sondhe’s obsession with photography began at age 10, when her father brought a Polaroid and a Nikon on a family trip to India. By age 17, she had built a dark room in her basement, doubling down by persuading the nuns at her high school to lend her the keys to one there. By her mid-30s she had assisted famous photographers in New York, among them Oliverio Toscani and Nigel Parry. At 36, she set out on her own. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, and she has taken pictures for the Clinton Foundation.

Then, at age 44, she found herself grounded.

When Sondhe found the lump in her breast, she was standing in the shower. Her first thought was how sad her mother was going to be; she had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the same age. One of her next revelations was about herself: “I always thought that my go-to word was ‘Fuck’. Turns out it was ‘Shit’. I just stood there going ‘Shit. Shit. Shit, shit, shit’.”

As treatment progressed, Sondhe’s fearless sense of humor, her ability to find lightness amidst the dark, meant she kept stumbling into moments of hilarity. During her MRI at Weill Cornell Medicine, she requested Bollywood music as a distraction. When the booming of the beat began to match the booming of the machine she dissolved into laughter. The technician, thinking she was sobbing, did her best to soothe her.

Her friends, whom she says are also a bunch of jokers, loved her anecdotes and encouraged her to bottle them. She kept notes and is working on turning them into a play. But when chemotherapy started, the laughing stopped.

“Chemotherapy sucks the happiness out of you,” says Sondhe. “They have you on so many drugs and so much is going on, you would think you would be able to find that place and find that humor, but it doesn’t exist.”

Sondhe was angry that no one tells you what to expect when you are going through treatment. You know you are going to be sick and you know your hair is going to fall out, but not much else. No one tells you how much it affects your brain. How you see and taste things differently. How smells are too strong.

She channeled her surprise and dismay into a new vein of work, photographs stylized as drawings that are intended to make the viewer able to look through her eyes. During chemo, she says, everyone appeared to her in a sort of comic book outline.

“I want to fight for people who have to go through chemo, who can’t and don’t have a way to explain to people who take care of them,” says Sondhe. “If they have a friend or a partner or mother or parent and you can look at a picture and understand, maybe you can be more mindful, be more prepared.”

The models are sideshow and burlesque performers who often turn up in her photography because Sondhe finds their work both funny and dark. The captions on the images below are as told to Quartz—Sondhe’s own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Burlesque performer The Incredible Edible Akynos on Sondhe’s kitchen table. (Nisha Sondhe)

EAT I remember I went to Dean & Deluca, it was the middle of summer and I was all hot and sweaty and bald and grumpy and I ordered a big turkey sandwich and this pristine, gorgeous model, young thing was having her salad. And she looked at me and I felt like Jabba the Hut inhaling my turkey sandwich. And she just gave me the kindest look and even she was like, “Girl, just eat, it’s ok, we’ll all know you’re on chemo.” The only thing that makes you feel better on chemotherapy, really and truly, is eating. Eat whatever the hell you want!

Burlesque performer Exhotic Other in Sondhe’s bed. (Nisha Sondhe)

CRY It’s that sadness that starts to loom. I’m always really lighthearted about everything tragic, and when I was on chemotherapy I was tragic about even the most lighthearted things. You can just start crying at any moment.

Side-show artist and magician Albert Cadabra at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. (Nishe Sondhe)

TRAP The farthest I could go was [a few blocks away] to Brooklyn Bridge Park. I felt like I was on a long chain, because as much as I wanted to go somewhere out of the neighborhood, I just couldn’t, because I was too exhausted. The idea of going was just exhausting. And I’m a traveler. I was like a bird with wings that were clipped.

Burlesque performer M Dame Cuchifrita on the boardwalk in Coney Island, Brooklyn. (Nishe Sondhe)

RUN For some reason, of all the places in New York City, the place I wanted to go the most, I can’t tell you why, was Coney Island. I just wanted to run to the ends of the city. There is that feeling you want to escape your body, you want to get away from all of it. But you can’t.

Nelson Lugo, magician. (Nishe Sondhe)

BURN This is the heat that chemotherapy actually is. You start getting hot flashes. You’re hot and sweaty and burny. Historically I’m always the one that would take a sweater in the middle of summer or take a shawl. And that heat from chemotherapy is still with me [two years later]. That intensity, I never got that hot before.

Sword swallower Betty Bloomers. (Nishe Sondhe)

HURT I felt like all of the inside of me was filled with soot. Your tongue turns black, everything gets black. The inside your fingernails were all black. I wasn’t allowed to do my nails. I felt like I was some type of Siamese cat. I just felt like I was filled with soot, like I was swallowing some sort of soot, constantly.

Burlesque performer Sister Selva on a yoga mat in Sondhe’s apartment. (Nisha Sondhe)

SCREAM I always found when I was in yoga or in some situation where I was doing something that was supposed to calm me down, I just entered into a rage. My three-year-old nephew, when he used to throw a temper tantrum he would run around in a circle and scream at the top of his lungs. He and I, we would do that. Just run in circles and scream.

Clown and sideshow performer Jelly the Clown. (Nisha Sondhe)

FEAR They give you this tiny shot of this stuff called Neulasta, it’s supposed to keep your white blood cell count up. The two days it started kicking in the pain was so excruciating I would be terrified of taking showers, rain drops on your skin hurt so badly. I would take my showers sobbing. I see ads for it all the time—they have two women, just chatting.

Burlesque performer Miss Auroraboobrealis in Sondhe’s apartment. (Nisha Sondhe)

WAIT It’s just waiting around. It’s going to be over. I was a very lucky girl. Everyone kept using the word “preventative,” saying, “It’s ok, we got this. Just wait it out.” It’s about just sitting. I used to dress up for my chemo. Gucci (the store) gave me the caftan that the model is wearing in this photo. She’s all dressed up and just kind of waiting there.

Burlesque performer Dangrrr Doll on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. (Nishe Sondhe)

HALLUCINATE I took a walk along the promenade after every chemo. It was summer around sunset and it can get packed. Part of the whole “chemo brain thing,” which goes on for 12 to 18 months after you’re done, I was always doing double-takes. Everything, everyone always looked a little off-kilter. That one lingered. … Part of it is still kind of with me.

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