Though Gwendolyn Quinn’s narrow office barely has room for two chairs, a bookshelf and a desk, 17 people keep her company each day. Peeking out from a large cardboard box to the right of her computer, glossy, grayscale images of her latest photo essay’s subjects watch her work.
“The really big prints that travel for our exhibitions are kept in storage,” she said. “I keep the rest of them here in case I need them.”
Quinn, who holds a doctorate in psychology from Florida State University, works at Moffitt Cancer Center to raise awareness of health and social issues through visual media. Her photocopied office guests exemplify the medium she most often uses – the photo essay. All come from Faces of Lung Cancer, a book Quinn said she helped create to provide hope to those battling the disease.
Faces of Lung Cancer also serves as a way to make cancer patients more comfortable with the thought of participating in clinical trials, a focus of Quinn’s career that she said is crucial to finding a cure for cancer. Part of her passion for the project, she said, stems from patients’ misconceptions about trials.
“We called it the ‘guinea pig syndrome,’ because people would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be a guinea pig’ (when they were asked to participate in clinical trials),” she said. “There was distrust about trials, because people would say, ‘I spoke to my doctor and he never offered a clinical trial, because that would mean that my cancer’s really bad, and if they can treat it with standard therapy then that means that I’m OK.'”
With these stigmas in mind, Quinn and the Lung and Thoracic Tumor Education (LATTE) committee – which published an article on people’s reluctance toward clinical trials – began searching for ways to banish them. After working with St. Petersburg-based photographer Beth Reynolds on three previous photo essay projects, Quinn said she turned to her with an idea for a photo essay to confront these problems: Faces of Lung Cancer. It’s this ability to develop unconventional ways to make people rethink social issues that Reynolds said attracted her to the first photo essay she worked on with Quinn.
“(Quinn) is one of those people I love to work with, because she’s left and right-brained,” Reynolds said. “She’s very scientific; she knows her information inside and out for social marketing, but she can also see the creative side, which is where I come from, and can understand the concepts I talk about … she has a great ability to think out of the box. So often the remedy for trying to educate people is to create some slick pamphlet that you leave out at a doctor’s office or hand out at a health fair, and they really don’t motivate people to take action, but these stories really do.”
Confident in Reynolds’ work, Quinn invited Reynolds to pitch her ideas for Faces of Lung Cancer to the LATTE committee. Reynolds said she was used to struggling to convince people to accept such a creative medium since it deviated from the traditional pamphlet-and-brochure method of delivering information. She braced herself for that reaction, but said she was surprised to discover quite the opposite.
“Right after my presentation, Dr. (Gerold) Bepler said, ‘How much money do you need, and when can you start?’ which shocked me,” Reynolds said. “All I could say was ‘thank you’ to Dr. Quinn, because she’s the one who got me involved in this project. She’s become a great mentor for me because I met her after being burned out from working for a daily newspaper, and really wanted to focus on social documentaries and wondered how I’d ever find a way to do it. Then I interviewed for her first project, and she’s pulled me into these projects ever since, which is amazing.”
Bepler, a LATTE committee member, said that Quinn’s expertise in social marketing and her strong work ethic made her an asset to Faces of Lung Cancer.
“Dr. Quinn is a very productive person, and she’s not flashy at all,” he said. “She has areas of knowledge that I have no clue about, and although our areas of expertise lie in two totally different things, we’re joined by a goal – completing this book – which is a common theme that’s expressed in the book.”
During the year and a half it took to complete Faces of Lung Cancer, Quinn handled administrative duties and acted as a liaison between Reynolds and the LATTE committee. Though her job kept her largely behind the scenes, Quinn said editing the essays and wading through hours of Reynolds’ interviews made her feel connected to the book’s subjects.
“Ann (one person interviewed for the book) and her niece really stand out in my mind,” she said. “Her niece was wearing a shirt with the year on it, and we asked her if she wanted to date the photograph like that, and she said ‘yes.’ Her niece is a very important part of her life, and that photograph represented a unique moment in time. It made me realize how often people take tons of photos when someone’s born, but rarely do we think of taking photos of someone who is dying and celebrate their time with us. It was very touching.”
Quinn said she did not meet many of the patients until the book’s opening reception. Claire Carpenter, 80. remembers Quinn fondly even though they spoke for only a few minutes.
“She walked up to me, and she was very, very nice,” Carpenter said. “Everything about her – and everyone I met at Moffitt – was positive. Being a part of this book was an uplifting experience.”
As Quinn flipped through the pages of Faces of Lung Cancer, pointing out those she met during the book’s reception, she reflected on her work at Moffitt.
“It’s really interesting, being a psychologist working among so many doctors. The second floor is cancer discovery, and we (who have offices on that floor) joke that we’re not going to cure cancer like everybody else here, but we want to contribute to the search for the cure and comfort those afflicted by it.”