Snapshots of life—in sickness and in health

Jessica Lieberman leading the way to ‘Becoming Visible’




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RIT Press

During her treatments, Jessica Lieberman and her husband Amit Ray, above, dressed for Halloween; Ray was the Cat in the Hat, while Lieberman and her sister were 
Thing One and Thing Two.

She was just 27 years old when doctors dismissed 
her symptoms of debilitating joint pain, fatigue and 
weakness as “unmarried woman’s disease” and “graduate student syndrome.” Months later, Jessica Lieberman was 
diagnosed with lupus, which led to 
further devastating news—she was also suffering from Hodgkin’s 
lymphoma stage IIIB. 


In 1998, the graduate student at University of Michigan entered the 
invisible universe where seriously ill cancer patients go—a place where you don’t recognize your own image in the mirror, a time when even loyal friends 
disappear after hearing the news. 


Nevertheless, Lieberman held her 
illness up like a prism, looking at it from every angle, exploring every facet. In her book published by RIT Press, Becoming Visible, the assistant 
professor of visual culture in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, who also teaches in the photography program at RIT’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, recounts her two-year odyssey through diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, 
radiation and recovery. 


She dedicates her book to Amit Ray, associate professor in the Department of English at RIT, “who handled it all” and whom she later married. 


In this candid documentary, Lieberman says she “stole” 
images of herself while undergoing chemotherapy 
treatment—using plastic Holga cameras and a Pentax K1000. “This was before the enactment of the new HIPPA laws, and hospital staff told me I was banned from taking photographs or having copies of the images of my body from CT scans 
or MRIs,” she explained. “So I hid 
disposable cameras underneath my sweatshirt or blankets and no one 


suspected anything because no one was really looking at me.”


Becoming Visible is a scholarly and therapeutic study that shows how the forces of art and narrative can 
contribute to social dynamics for change. The text and images that 
document the emotional trauma of 
living with a life-threatening disease are blunt and candid—not always pretty to look at, and aren’t meant to be.


“To talk about the taboo complexities of illness and dying is not the norm,” said Lieberman, who teaches classes (often wait-listed) on the Art of Dying. “Students across the university—photo, design, women’s studies, business, game designers and engineering—all come ready to talk about death. They often react powerfully as they question the silence and discomfort surrounding the cultural practices of mourning and healing and discuss it with their families and within their social circles.”


In 1995, Ray says he and Lieberman became instantly 
attracted when they met in graduate school in Ann Arbor, Mich., and their relationship grew even stronger after 
surviving cancer together. “It was incredibly late when they found Jess’s lymphoma and she had eight tumors the size of golf balls wrapped around her throat,” Ray recalled. “They told us she would have only three months to live without 
immediate treatment. The irony of ironies is that they found it because of another serious disease—lupus.” 


As Lieberman’s primary caretaker, Ray exercised daily to “the point of exhaustion” to relieve stress and build 
endurance. “We didn’t fight this alone,” Ray said. “Jess’s 
parents and siblings flew out several times from California 
and many friends stepped forward to offer support.”


Last year, a doctor who is an expert in lymphoma said 
the treatment regiment Lieberman received in 1999 was 
“barbaric.” The extensive chemo cocktails and radiation have left her with a compromised heart, lungs and non-functioning thyroid, complicated by daily problems with circulation, 
metabolism, breathing, exposure and pain. 


After cancer treatment it wasn’t clear whether the 
couple could have biological children. But they did. “We had two miracle babies, Lucy, who is 9, and Kiran, who is 6,”
said Lieberman. “They know that illness is part of who 
mommy is.”


Lieberman and Ray also have learned to live with 
uncertainty—she knows her limitations; he accepts them. 


“There is no remission only because of how advanced 
my cancer was; I have what they call long-term disease free survival,” said Lieberman. “One of the text images in the 
book reveals the state of my health after treatment: Diet: Regular; Activity: As tolerated; Condition of patient at 
discharge: Alive.”


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RIT Press

During her treatments, Jessica Lieberman and her husband Amit Ray, above, dressed for Halloween; Ray was the Cat in the Hat, while Lieberman and her sister were 
Thing One and Thing Two.

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RIT Press

Jessica Lieberman lost her long blonde hair almost immediately after starting chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

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A. Sue Weisler

Jessica Lieberman with her two children, Lucy and Kiran, at the launch of her book and solo exhibition, Becoming Visible, at Gallery r last November.