More than a decade ago, I met Reena thanks to this camera of mine. It’s one of those incredible by-products of being a portrait photographer. This camera gives you access to the lives of others and sometimes through that access, friendships form. This is what happened when I met Reena oh so many years ago. There was an instant click (puns are punny!) and we have been friends ever since.
Reena is a woman of many talents. She is a teacher and a writer and she is also a creator. She creates the most beautiful jewellery and homewares, all created from ethically-sourced parts and sells them in her shop called kisii handmade. And because Reena is that incredible, a portion of all kisii sales goes to the Desmoid Tumour Foundation of Canada.
I knew that the name ‘kisii’ related to Reena’s Kenyan roots so I asked her for the specifics. Instead of me writing it out, I am going to let her words tell you what kisii means.
“Kisii is a small city in Kenya. It’s not where my family is originally from (Mombasa), but in the 70s when my Mom was starting her amazing teaching career, she was placed there. In the 70s, hell even today, to be a young woman who moves from a big city to a very remote city in a country divided by politics, racial injustice and gender inequality, it was a bold and brave move. Full of excitement and fear, she forged ahead and lived in a small cottage and taught in a classroom that many would consider unequipped for learning in today’s digital age. But the kids prevailed and succeeded, they even planned a class field trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She was that kind of a lady. And after immigrating to England and then Canada, she continued to teach – only instead of in a classroom, it evolved to a dance studio and theatre where she really found her calling. So kisii represents a starting point for the women in my family. It’s a metaphor for taking a risk while having a heart full of good intentions.”
Reena is also a survivor and a fighter. In 2008 she found a lump on her calf and it took two years of various tests, biopsies, MRIS and all that fun stuff before they figured out what was happening and they removed two tumours. It turned out that they were Desmoid Tumours which are not your typical tumour breed. These awful things don’t grow in one solid mass. Instead they are of as sort of mushy pasta consistency which makes them really hard to remove. She had six weeks of radiation at this time and unfortunately in 2012 the tumours returned. This time, chemo seemed like the best option so for 1.5 years, every three weeks out of four, Reena would travel to the hospital for this treatment. And the chemo worked! At least for a couple of years before signs of them returning started appearing in 2015. For a year a new oral chemo treatment trial seemed like the best option so she signed up for that and was using that approach until recently. So over the span of ten years, Reena has had 8 tumours (of which three are still alive), six weeks of daily radiation, 1.5 years of intravenous chemo and another year of oral chemo. What a ride!
In the past couple of months, this incredible woman has decided to take a detox from all of the treatments. To give time to focus on her own self and her life. To not let these tumours rule her world as they have been for nearly ten years now. Reena never plays the victim. In fact, she is quite quiet about the status of her health. Whenever I am with her, I am filled with such admiration for her. She is resilient. She is strong. She is inspiring. And I feel so blessed to have her as my soul sister.
We recently did a lifestyle portrait session together. She needed some new portraits of herself, as well as some action shots of her creating the jewellery that she sells through kisii. I love all of the resulting images from this session but my favourite portraits have to be the ones of her proudly displaying her scar. When it comes to scars, we are so used to hiding these so-called imperfections. But the truth is, we should proudly display them. They are our battle wounds. Our proof that we have been through something. That we have conquered it. And that we will continue the fight.
Thank you, Reena, for this afternoon with me and my camera.