Angelo Merendino’s intent when he began photographing his wife’s battle with breast cancer was to communicate with their families, who were hundreds of miles away.

“We were in Manhattan and they were in Ohio. There was a gap in our communication,” Merendino said in a phone interview. “We felt they didn’t understand how serious things were getting. The photographs came out of a necessity to communicate.”

The result is a brutally honest portrayal of Jennifer Merendino’s final months, told in a searing series of black and white photographs, “The Battle We Didn’t Choose: My Wife’s Fight with Breast Cancer.”

It is on view at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies through First Friday Art Walk this week. Merendino will be at the Congress Street gallery on Friday to speak about his photographs and his wife.

Jennifer died at age 40 in December 2011. They were married in September 2007 in Central Park.

Merendino called his wife the love of his life, and the woman he knew he would marry the moment he met her.

“When I first saw Jen, I had never seen anyone so beautiful. It was not just physical. There was something about her that seemed really full of life,” he said.

Jen was widowed at age 25, and Merendino believes her experience with losing someone close sharpened her appreciation for life. “She had this great awareness of how wonderful life was and how difficult it was, and she was thankful to be alive.”

Being with her, he said, was calming and comforting.

“Life got brighter. Music sounded better. Food tasted better. Everything was better with Jen,” he said.

Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer early in 2008. When they celebrated their one-year anniversary that fall, her oncologist declared her cancer-free.

The couple began rebuilding their lives, but their joy was short-lived. The cancer was back in spring 2010.

Merendino began this project with his wife’s blessing as she began her treatments. The photographs follow her journey, from hospital visits to her life at home in their New York apartment. They show her in anguish and in pain, and taking small pleasure in quiet moments, such as sitting on a window sill applying toe-nail polish.

The images are extraordinary in their lack of privacy. In the final sequence, viewers see Jennifer as EMTs escort her into an ambulance to bring her home from the hospital to receive hospice care, and in the final hours of her life as she receives religious comfort.

Finally, we see her empty bed and the hearse that carried her body away on a winter day.

While the photographs have received a lot of attention and praise, Merendino said he’s also heard criticism from some who say the photographs are too personal. Instead of taking pictures, Merendino should have provided comfort, they say.

Some people have accused him of exploiting his wife’s illness for his art.

Merendino, who has returned to Ohio, will address those criticisms during his gallery talk on Friday.

Given a choice, he wishes his wife hadn’t gotten sick. And he did provide care for months on end, after both the first and second diagnoses.

Jennifer encouraged him to take photographs, he said, because she wanted people to know the reality of cancer.

“I can understand why people might react the way they do,” he said. “These photographs are scary. They put mortality in your face.”

He is not trying to shock people, but to portray the situation for what it was – and as it is for those fighting cancer.

He knows he did the right thing when he receives an email from someone saying she scheduled a mammogram after seeing the exhibition, which has traveled across the world, or from a family member of someone battling cancer who has a deeper understanding of a loved one’s struggles.

“I would trade all of this to not have gone through this with Jennifer,” he said. “I wish I never had to make these photographs. But Jennifer’s legacy is a positive force in the world. She has inspired people to embrace life.”

To help preserve his wife’s legacy, Merendino has begun a foundation, The Love You Share, to help women fighting breast cancer and their families with transportation costs and daily living expenses.

The Merendinos had a nice support system in New York, but with their families so far away they sometimes felt alone. The Love You Share will help couples address day-to-day needs.

“During the darkest time, when someone would do something kind for us – it could be as simple as someone sending dinner – that could be the one thing in our day that made us smile.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: [email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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