Silent stories: Brain cancer forces renowned photographer to speak through images

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FALMOUTH — Three years ago, photojournalist Jim Daniels was on a nine-day trek across the snowy peaks of the Himalaya mountains with his wife, Mary Lello, to celebrate her 50th birthday. While they were stopped at a camp in Ladakh, India, to adjust to the altitude, Daniels snapped a picture of a boy carrying a pack across an ice-cold, rushing river.

The photo of the boy hangs over the fireplace in their living room, overlooking the Falmouth town landing. From Tanzania to Bangladesh to West Papua New Guinea, Daniels toured the world making photos for the Associated Press, and his work was once considered for a Pulitzer Prize.

Now, Daniels is also considered a long-term survivor of glio blastoma, a malignant brain cancer. His wife speaks for him because radiation treatment has cost Daniels the use of the right side of his body, his ability to activate a camera shutter and his ability to speak.

“He had surgery on Dec. 29, 2008,” Lello said. “They were able to remove one tumor, but the other one was across hemispheres. If they’d taken that, there wouldn’t have been any of him left.”

After the surgery, Lello said, Daniels was much better. He was able to respond to basic commands, like touching a finger to his nose, and able to speak clearly, neither of which he’d been able to do before. But because the second tumor could not be removed, doctors started him on radiation.

“About five months ago, we started seeing the effects of the radiation,” she said.

While he can think clearly and understands the world around him, the radiation damaged the speech center, or Broca’s area, of Daniels’ brain. Now, he has funneled his creative energy into learning how to speak again.

That’s where Northeast Hearing & Speech came in. The organization, which recently moved to the Portland Star Match buildings on outer Commercial Street, has traditionally aided young people with speech problems. However, now that it’s in a larger space, Executive Director Nancy Steeves said the agency will be able to expand its services to adults.

“In the new space we have lots of light, and lots of wall space,” Steeves said. “When we realized we had a client who was a world-renowned photographer, we got very excited.”

Dena Polko, a speech language pathologist for NHS, has been working with Daniels for several months, using a technique that focuses on the rhythm of speech. She has him tap out the rhythms of words, as if he were singing the sentences. Because singing and speech use different parts of the brain, this is a way for people with a brain injuries to essentially rewire their brains.

Daniels is able to say yes, no, and thank you, and can speak short sentences when he taps them out. However, the process can be quite frustrating. So when Polko saw that Daniels could still tell stories through his photographs, she jumped on the opportunity to give him a space to do that.

“Things have appeared as we needed them. Dena was a grace. She’s been amazing,” Lello said.

NHS will display 20 of Daniels’ photos from all over the world, including a photo of Masai warriors from Karatu, Tanzania, and the boy from the Ladakh camp. The photos were matted and framed by Daniels’ long-time friend and fellow photographer Stretch Tuemmler, and will be for sale as a fundraiser for his treatment. NHS is sponsoring a public reception to show the works on Thursday, April 29, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“It would be wonderful if the community came out,” Steeves said.

Daniels will attend the NHS reception, where he will enjoy an evening where his voice will be heard, loud and clear, through a lifetime of vividly told photographic stories.

In the meantime, Daniels and Lello focus on the day to day. Daniels receives regular treatment with an experimental drug that seems to be stopping the growth and possibly even shrinking the tumor in his brain. He goes to physical therapy to try to regain use of his right side. And he works diligently to tap out rhythmic messages and teach his brain to tell stories once again.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or

“Ladakh Bridge” was made by by photojournalist Jim Daniels of Falmouth three years ago during a trek across the Himalaya mountains with his wife, Mary Lello. Daniels was diagnosed with brain cancer not long after returning from the trip.

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Photojournalist Jim Daniels pauses to pose with the subjects of his work during a documentary tour that focused on the children of the Dominican Republic. Daniels, who lives in Falmouth, was diagnosed with brain cancer a year and a half ago and has lost the ability to speak or make photos. A collection of his works will be displayed at Northeast Hearing & Speech in the Portland Star Match building on outer Commercial Street on April 29 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.