Helena Světlá (left) laughs with Anna Rathkopf in the hospital in 2021, as Rathkopf holds a mirror for her mother to apply lipstick.
It was a small gesture—taking her mother’s hand—that opened photographer Anna Rathkopf’s eyes to see her world shifting in disturbing ways.
The two women were at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Rathkopf’s mother, Helena Světlá, was treated in 2021 after suffering a stroke and being diagnosed with colon cancer a few days later.
Rathkopf has taken over the job, packing clothes and handling medical paperwork for her mother. She also speaks for Světlá: both women are from the Czech Republic, and Rathkopf’s mother is 69 and doesn’t speak much English. But when their hands touched, Rathkopf realized how much her mother and their relationship had changed.
“Her hand actually reminded me of my grandfather’s hand. It was her father, with blood vessels and everything,” said Rathkopf, 43. ” Jesse (Raskopf’s son) is Mi. It’s really weird that you realize, well, now I’m my mom. I’m mom.”
She captured the moment as part of a deeply personal photo series documenting Světlá’s journey through surgery, treatment, and the ups and downs that followed. Rathkopf said the photoshoot was their way of coping with the harsh truths of their new reality, including finding themselves in a caretaker role that she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted.
“It’s really hard to watch your parents grow old. It’s not fun because they’re not supposed to grow old. They’re supposed to be here for us,” she said. “Mom will cook for me, right? I’m not supposed to be the one who’s supposed to cook everyone’s dinner. … It sounds selfish and egotistical. But I guess that’s what we were like when we were kids.”
The number of people in Rathkopf positions has been growing — about 53 million adults in the U.S. will be unpaid home caregivers in 2020, up from 43.5 million in 2015, according to a report by the National Alliance of Nursing and AARP. About half of them are caring for their parents, said Scott Beach, a social psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh.
“A lot of people don’t really think it’s going to touch them,” said Beach, director of the survey research program at the school’s Center for Social and Urban Studies. “At some point, all of us will either need care or maybe help with care or something.”
Rathkopf, who received her own shocking diagnosis in December 2016, has been on both sides of that dynamic.
light in the dark
Learning she had breast cancer was like a huge weight on Rathkopf; it was also a catalyst. Her hopes of having a second child began to fade as she worried about how long it would take her to raise her first child, Jesse, who was 2 at the time. This situation prompted her to leave her steady job to pursue freelance photography full-time with her husband, Jordan Rathkopf.
Their commercial work spans multiple industries – including law, education and healthcare – but Anna Rathkopf says everything they do revolves around emotion and connecting with people.
“Emotions have to be there. And real feelings,” she says. “Even if you do it with lighting, even if you do a really big production…we’re always looking at the emotion between the subjects. I think that’s what draws people in.”
Of course, this approach takes on a different tone when photographers are their own subjects and the health of loved ones is the focus. Emotions—sadness, fear, love, anger—are abundant. But the scenes shot by Jordan and Ana are far from Instagram-perfect: They include hospital wards and doctors’ offices, post-operative photos and close-ups of allergic reactions.
The moment captured was by far the most difficult of Rathkopf’s life, both mentally and physically. At that time, the camera was not an intrusion, but a welcome distraction for the family, and another way to care for each other. Often just a snap of the shutter lightens the mood, interrupting the tears and bitter “Why me?” inner monologue, dragging them back to the present.
“At some point, (Jordan) would pull out the camera and I’d cry, but it always made me laugh,” Rathkopf said. “And he also used it to pull me out of really dark moments. Because he’d be (jokingly) like, ‘Oh, you should cry a little more. That doesn’t look big enough.'”
Flirty remained a lifeline, and shortly after Ratkoff started feeling better, her mother fell ill. Světlá has lived with the family since Jesse’s birth and provided essential support during Rathkopf’s illness – cooking, cleaning and caring for her grandson. As they embark on another treatment plan, doctor visits and hospital stays, having the camera with them “is like muscle memory,” Rathkopf said.
“She would start telling me ‘oh no, I can’t believe you’re taking pictures right now. I’m in the hospital,'” recalls Rathkopf. In the end, though, Světlá allowed a surprising level of access.
“I know that you also let yourself be photographed, so I don’t mind,” Světlá told Rathkopf in a video interview in which they were both present. CNN translated Světlá’s Czech response.
Even bathrooms are not off limits. Rathkopf’s uncle, Pavel Hečko, was a well-known Czech photographer, so her mother, a painter, was used to being in front of the camera. Her health problems left little room for other problems. “I was so focused on myself that I didn’t notice (being photographed),” Světlá said.
Still, Světlá laughed in disbelief one day when Rathkopf entered the hospital shower with her camera. Ratkoff said it was also a strange time for her to see her mom so vulnerable.
“I had to help her from the bed to the shower. Basically undressing her. I’d never done that before,” recalls Rathkopf. “All of this feels weird. Because no one prepares you for it.”
Other photographs of Světlá—showing her slumped in a car or at a desk with her head bowed—illustrate the exhaustion of the treatment process and the tension that often comes with the role transitions women experience.
The change of place, and the embarrassment, frustration, and loss that comes with it, is evident throughout the series. In one photo from 2017, Rathkopf lies on a bed while her mother places a hand on her head; in a later shot, her mother argues with Rathkopf about whether Světlá listened to her during her recovery After the doctor’s advice, sitting on the bed thoughtfully.
“The dynamic is different because she’s your mom,” Rathkopf said. “For me, I think it’s easier to get help because I’m a daughter and I’m used to being held by that person. But she’s not used to being held by me.”
Světlá recalled anger during the altercation, saying she felt “completely powerless” at being told what she could or couldn’t do.
After leaving the hospital, Světlá struggled with extreme fatigue, a common symptom among stroke survivors.
In 2017, Rathkopf rested exhausted after chemotherapy.
“I felt uncomfortable when our roles were reversed and suddenly (my daughter) started taking care of me. I didn’t want to admit that I was sick,” Světlá said.
Some photos also highlight similarities between the women’s journeys.
“You tend to subconsciously compare what’s happening to you to what’s happening to someone you love,” Rathkopf said. “It’s been interesting to see how common this experience actually is.”
Raskopf eventually returns to this shared experience when discussing her relationship with her mother and how she hopes to move forward.
Before her illness, Světlá — Rathkopf describes her as a “bohemian” — liked to ride around on her scooter, and Jesse followed her. Neighbors recognized her fiery red hair as the pair sped around Brooklyn. While both women are now in remission with their cancer, Světlá’s ongoing stroke-related problems led Rathkopf to insist on ending the scooter, leading to yet another flare-up. But time changed her opinion again.
Now, especially as she looks back at photos of her mother’s illness, Rathkopf says the anger dissipates and all that’s left is sympathy.
“Suddenly, she was hit by this crazy feeling of physically betraying (her), and I knew that feeling,” Rathkopf said. “I’m more in the acceptance (phase) and trying not to be too tough.”
The distance also made the mother and daughter a little relieved. Světlá traveled to the Czech Republic last summer to visit family, where she started developing some back problems, but she plans to return to the U.S. when she feels well enough to travel.
“I think it’s over,” Světlá said, referring to the strained relationship with her daughter.
Reflecting on his past relationship with his own mother, Světlá adds: “Going back to Prague helped a lot. It would have been worse if I had no place to go. I also finally understood how my own mother felt, because when I was caring for her, Treated her like a little kid too. The distance gave (me and my daughter) a good perspective. My mom couldn’t run away.”
The University of Pittsburgh-Beach has studied caregivers of the sandwich generation — people like Rathkopf who support both older family members and children — and suggests that strategies for leaving when a person is able can be key to coping.
“That thought of taking a breather, of taking a break, keeps coming because people feel like they’re always there,” he said.
Despite the pain and conflict, Rathkopf also finds a lot of joy in her images. Photos that include Jesse and highlight the connective tissue between all members of her family often inspire this feeling.
“Even when the emotions are really raw, everyone’s like, okay, but we have this little guy,” she said.
But some less obvious moments stand out too — including the moment when Rathkopf knows Světlá wants to “come back”: After a particularly difficult time in the hospital, Světlá asks for her signature red lipstick. The image after Rathkopf’s application shows the mother and daughter smiling closer to the selves they once knew.