the big picture
Austin photographer turns lens on his unexpected cancer journey in new book
In his upcoming book, photographer Dimitri Staszewski takes readers on a journey that explores mortality, resilience, and the transformative power of art. Titled Close to the Bayou, the book is a poignant exploration of the author’s relationship with renowned contemporary jewelry artist Thomas Mann, as they navigate cancer treatment together — unexpectedly.
Based in Austin, Staszewski is a photographer with an interest in spotlighting global issues through intimate storytelling. Mann, a mentor and uncle figure to Staszewski, has been a significant influence on his life. The pair would spend hours in a makeshift jewelry studio, continuing Mann's extensive body of work, cooking meals together, and engaging in introspective late-night conversations.
Of course, Staszewski's stayed by Mann's side when he was diagnosed with cancer, which the photographer started documenting in an early version of Close to the Bayou. The project was soon marked by surprising twists and turns.
After a year of traveling between Austin and Houston to support Mann during treatment, Staszewski received a cancer diagnosis of his own. This life-changing event compelled the author to reinterpret what he learned from Mann's experience.
Staszewski hopes his work will encourage readers to re-evaluate the way they think about being close to death.
"I don't expect one book to change someone's perspective on mortality," says Staszewski. "My hope is just to allow the audience to think about mortality on a deeper level."
The book combines images with introspective writing that reflects a lifelong relationship and the profound impact of witnessing a mentor confront mortality.
It represents a transition for Staszewski, who started in photojournalism but broke from its conventions for this personal project. As a photojournalist, he avoided inserting his own voice.
"That shift where I went from this abstract concept to, 'Oh, I'm thinking about my own death,' really shifted the way I was thinking about the work," says Staszewski.
Dimitri emphasizes the unique nature of his book, stating that it's not just a compilation of photos, but a novel-like story where the sequencing and pairing of images create new meanings. He encourages readers to approach it like a story where images are integral to the storytelling process.
Close to the Bayou delves into themes of cancer, male intimacy, and the intersection of art-making and mortality. These dialogues revolve around existential questions: What does it mean to be an artist? How does one continue creating in the face of death? What happens to our work after we die? Who are we creating for?
As Staszewski states in the book’s introduction and conclusion, “What does it mean to be close to the bayou?” This poetic refrain encapsulates the work's meditation on finding meaning when faced with mortality. He is interested in exploring art, mortality, and the meaning we instill in our creative acts — knowing that one day, we will cease to create.
"Close to the Bayou", created by Dimitri Staszewski and designed by Caleb Cain Marcus, will be available in 2024. Funding for this project uses a crowdfunding-based model with different pre-sale options available to support this work.