What would you do if you knew you had the choice to save a stranger’s life? What if I told you that the chance was in front of you at this very moment and involved very little discomfort or sacrifice?
Before the photographer Sean Blake lost his best friend Doug to Leukemia back in the mid 90’s, he made a vow to spread awareness about the need for bone marrow donors. The Untitled Chair Project, a photography initiative that has gone viral, is Sean’s heartfelt return on his promise to Doug.
When I invited Sean for a fancy cup of tea at the Ritz Carlton in Dubai, I was delighted when he showed up with his own seat—a neon red chair, which lit up the tastefully beige lobby and drew a number of curious but not unfriendly stares. Sean, who is originally from Texas and has the height, firm handshake and easy laugh of a fellow southerner, unbuckled a weathered messenger bag with “hub” the word for love in Arabic painted across the flap. He clumsily dropped a retro blue camera onto the table causing the china teacups to rattle dangerously.
The chair (which is from IKEA and covered in signatures) and the camera (which is a Diana F+) are the equipment Sean has used to spread a message of awareness across 92 countries in a most unusual way, beginning in the UAE. Sean tells me, “When I moved here I quickly made Emirati friends, and the way they offered hospitality and shared their culture completely changed my life. I wanted to do something to give back to the society.”
Having the long-term commitment to Doug steeping like mint leaves in the teapot of his mind, Sean did a little research and found out that of the 15.5 million registered bone marrow donors worldwide, only 90 are from the region. The number was so low simply due to a lack of awareness. A bone marrow transplant may be the best treatment option or even the only potential cure for patients with leukemia and more than 80 other life threatening diseases. Most patients don’t find a matching donor in their family and are completely dependent upon the donor database. Matches for bone marrow are needle in a haystack rare and typically come from the same ethnic group as the patient, which means that in order to save lives it is absolutely dire that more people register as potential donors.
Rather than pass out pamphlets or deliver a lecture, Sean began to snap pictures of the chair at various UAE landmarks and posting them online with GPS coordinates. He remembers, “First back in 2011, I offered a one of a kind polaroid to the first people to comment, which led me to send the originals all over the world. They went viral. I asked everyone to take a snap with the polaroid I’d sent them somewhere in their town and post it on social media, and soon I was getting back responses from all over Europe, Latin America, the USA, and Middle East.”
Phase two of the project (which remains ongoing) involves offering cost-free photography shoots to anyone who is willing to take on a commitment to the cause. Here are the rules according to Sean: “The participant gets to pick the location and time and I don’t give him or her any direction. They can show their personality and do anything they want with the chair as long as it doesn’t involve gazing directly into the camera.”
For each session Sean uses one pack of old school film containing only enough to snap ten photographs on the Diana F+. At the end of the session the participant chooses one to get signed and matted, which creates an opportunity for them to share the message with friends and family. Then they sign the chair as a sort of contract.
Sean’s stories of the shoots are glorious. There was Nihal, the kind Sudanese woman who befriended Sean and his wife in line at a visa-granting office and asked to be shot outside Abu Dhabi’s iconic Grand Mosque. There was the artist Nadine Kanso who has a heart as golden as the jewelry she designs. There was even a Malaysian tourist who shared the photo with his mother, who turned out to be a famous vegan blogger and in turn encouraged a huge audience of Asian readers to become registered donors. The list goes on and the photos, one after the next, feel spontaneous and dream-infused as the film that Sean chose for the project.
I was embarrassingly ignorant about how to register and donate bone marrow, and assumed the process was painful and time-consuming, but Sean set me straight by explaining that it’s simply a matter of asking one’s family physician to swab a piece of cotton against the cells of the inner cheek and send the data in for analysis at a lab. That swab gets analyzed in a lab in order to identify your tissue type. If the information is an exact match for someone who is desperately in need of a donor, then you’re notified immediately. Otherwise your data goes on a list of potential future matches. I nearly teared up when Sean said, “All I want to do is prevent someone else having to go through the pain that our family went through in losing Doug.”
After our tea (which thankfully did not involve any broken fine china), we wandered among the galleries in DIFC, where Sean shot me writing a poem in my yellow notebook while seated on the red chair beside a favorite pink sculpture. I was honored to sit on the chair and will be asking my physician to assist in adding my name to the list of Bone Marrow donors at our next appointment. Who knows…it might just save a stranger’s life one day.
Good Ideas: You can follow Sean Blake and learn more about how you can get involved with The Untitled Chair Project here: http://theuntitledchairproject.blogspot.ae
To read more about registering to be a donor visit: http://bethematch.org
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Sean Blake and the Untitled Chair Project