New Brunswick·Feature

Becoming Mr. Buckley: an intimate end-of-life portrait

A new photo essay by Saint John photographer Dan Culberson is an intimate, raw portrait of the death of a loved one.

Photographer Dan Culberson creates moving photo essay of father-in-law's battle with cancer

Jack Buckley was 72 when he died of cancer: his son-in-law, Dan Culberson, chose to chronicle his final days. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)
A new photo essay by Saint John photographer Dan Culberson is an intimate, raw portrait of the death of a loved one.

Dan Culberson usually focuses on gritty industrial scenes and unposed street photography.

But when his father-in-law, Jack Buckley, was diagnosed with cancer in December 2015, Culberson started documenting the progression of the illness.

"I think a camera is a way for me to study an event and distance myself from it at the same time," he said.

"Kind of understand the world and also a way of separating from the sadness of it."

Lifelong Saint Johner

Culberson searched family albums for old photos of his father-in-law Jack Buckley. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

Buckley was born in Saint John in 1944 and grew up on MacLaren Boulevard in the north end.

He worked as a taxi driver most of his life. He loved bowling and remained an active member of the Woolco League for 27 years. He loved mowing the lawn with his ride-on mower.

"He was the most photogenic guy I've ever met," said Culberson.

The two men met in 2003, when Culberson started dating his future wife, Buckley's daughter Julie.

"He still dressed like it was 1962," Culberson said.

Julie Culberson said it was her father's warmth that affected people.

"My dad was a very sweet guy, very friendly and social with everyone," she said. 

"I've hardly ever seen him cranky, never heard him cuss. He was very grateful."

Jack and his daughter, Julie, in happier times in 2011. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

His open demeanour didn't change on the job.

"He loved talking to people and having them in his cab, to smile and laugh," said Culberson.

Diagnosis 'beginning of a journey'

Buckley's cancer was found in his esophagus and because he also had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his doctors said the tumour was inoperable.

"When he went into the hospital, I knew this was the beginning of a journey," Culberson said.

"It was on that day on the way home that I told Julie that I was going to photograph this all the way through."

Buckley was born in Saint John in 1944 and grew up on MacLaren Boulevard in the north end. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

From March 2016 to January 2017, he took a camera with him almost every time he visited.

The unposed series captures both the mundane, daily details of Buckley's hospital stay and the intensity of the illness.

"I wanted to show it being very real, without showing anything that Jack wouldn't want people to see."

Julie Culberson and her sister, Holly, would leave notes for their father when he was in the hospital to make sure he knew where they were. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

A family bond

A theme that emerged over photo series was the strength of the bond between Jack Buckley and his family. 

"When he was diagnosed, he had sent my sister Holly and I each a dozen roses to thank us for helping him with all of his appointments," Julie said.

At Christmas, Buckley instructed his daughters to buy half a dozen boxes of chocolates for the nurses at 5CN at the Saint John Regional Hospital

"He just wanted people at the hospital to know that he appreciated them so much."

Photographer Dan Culberson wanted to capture the poignant relationship between his wife of 12 years, Julie Culberson, and her father, Jack Buckley. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

Difficult images

Some photos were tough.

"It took a lot of bravery to go through what he went through," Culberson said.

One of the images that didn't make it into the final series was a shot of Jack being worked on by paramedics.

"There were quite a few moments like that where I had to ask myself, 'Is this an appropriate time to take out a camera?'" Culberson said.

While some of the images are hard to look at, Julie Culberson said the photo series of her father's last days is a "gift" to her family - capturing their experience in a ways words couldn't. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

But Julie Culberson said the photos have been a "gift" to her and her family, giving expression to feelings that she has trouble putting into words.

"That helps me a lot, to have that," she said. 

"It's painful now, but as time goes on, it will get easier. I think the photo series is beautiful. I think beautiful is a good word."

Jack began to lose his voice and sleep more, but even before that he started leaving notes to himself. This one reads “Julie downstairs. Holly on way.” (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

When Jack died on Jan. 18, 2017, he was surrounded by loved ones.

The Culbersons believe Jack Buckley would have been proud of the series.

"About a week before he passed away, I took him printed photos that included most of the ones in the series," Dan said.

"He couldn't speak. But I said, 'You look good on camera, Jack. And I'm going to take these photos and make you famous.' And he gave me an OK sign."

The full photo series is posted on Culberson's website.

Culberson said his father-in-law was "the most photogenic guy I've ever met." (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

He sees a series of photographs as something like a poem.

"Each photo is a line," Culberson said. 

"Each line can mean different things to different people, but reflects your own experiences or the world around you.

"I hope people see the story for what it is: a moment in a life."

Jack Buckley passed away in January 2017 at the age of 72. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)