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“I’m not afraid of anything … If I beat this, I can survive anything”: Interview with Réka Pávó Photographer, Leukemia Survivor

2018.10.09.

Réka Pávó is a photographer. She is not afraid of anything. She is not afraid because she survived the worst: a year ago, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Since then, she’s been through over nine months of hospital treatment and chemotherapy. The 30-year-old girl records her illness and everyday life in a blog. Her mission is to draw people’s attention to the importance of systematic blood and stem cell donation, as for many people, these are necessary for survival. Almost exactly a year after the diagnosis, she not only received her negative biopsy results but also the news that she won the prize of a prestigious international photo competition. Hungary Today had the opportunity to talk to her in her home about the photo competition and her illness.

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Réka in her favorite pink wig. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő / Hungary Today)

What did you do when you found out that you won the joint international mobile photo contest of Huawei and National Geographic?

I just woke up from my afternoon nap and I looked at the webpage – I knew that the results would be announced that day. I was shocked to see my picture in the middle of the front page. I felt that I might have won something, but I wasn’t sure. I checked it again and again and when it was still there after an hour, I started crying and yelling at my mom in the kitchen. I asked her to look at the webpage because I was still sure that it was a mistake, I simply did not believe it. I said that this is a consolation prize or a mandatory category; it is not possible that my face is next to the grand prix.

The main prize came with several gifts: a photo journey, laptop, cash prize… Which is the one you most appreciate? Or is it the acknowledgment?

Clearly the trip to Italy … This is a very interesting thing because before my illness, last summer, I traveled to Italy. It is a very strange, special feeling. I feel it is an interesting coincidence that I came home from Venice, almost died, and after beating leukemia, will start a new life with another expedition to Venice. The cash prize is a real gift from life, I’m sure I’m going to spend it all on brand new photography equipment.

How and when did you get into photography?

I was 16 when I took my first photos and I fell in love with photography instantly. Since then, it was my hobby; I spent all my free time – and money – on it. And my cancer career – as I say it – was complemented by photography as a kind of therapy. It helped me a lot in the healing process.

It helps more than anything when you have someone saying: “Look, I’ll love you the same with a bald head. I will never leave. Let’s do it. Together.” (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

What else and who helped you in the most difficult moments?

When you get sick, you find out it really doesn’t matter how much money, how many friends you have or what your family is like. If you are not healthy, you can’t do or enjoy anything. I think my recovery had three components. One-third of it was my family, my loved ones; another was God; the third was photography. But I’m most thankful to my fiancé. He was my main motivation and strength. It helps more than anything when you have someone saying: “Look, I’ll love you the same with a bald head. I will never leave. Let’s do it. Together.” I am very grateful that he was there with me all the time. He did the chemo and the hospital treatments with me and he still does. This is a real gift.

I see the mask from the winning picture with the inscription: HOPE. How did you take the photo? Is it a symbol or a mascot for you now?

The €10000 mask, yes. It’s my mascot because I received it from my nurse-friend the day I made the picture. Actually, I wanted to paint a Joker mouth on it but I did not have red lipstick, so I wrote HOPE on it instead. However, influenced by the chemo, I wrote it in reverse in a clumsy way. I had to mirror the picture afterward to be able to read it. Actually, first I wanted to take a black-and-white photo series of my roommate for the competition, but she didn’t let me. She didn’t want to see herself in the pictures in that state. Of course, I didn’t mind; I absolutely understood her. I became my own model because I didn’t have anyone to take pictures of.

The €10000 mask from the winning picture. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

And how did you get into blogging? Did you start writing for yourself, for therapeutic purposes, or did you want to help others by showing them your illness?

In the beginning, the doctors prepared me for the reality that I would have to stay in a hospital bed for a very long time and that I needed to think about how to release my excessive energy and invest it in something good. A week after the diagnosis, I started blogging out of passion. I’m not a writer, I’ve never been. I looked at some similar pages about cancer, but I did not want to write about treatments and mental difficulties in the same way. Since I am kind of a crazy person, I thought I’d combine texts with silly pictures to make it more colorful. So maybe my readers wouldn’t think here’s the suffering and groaning of the girl with leukemia, but rather look at how I’m fighting, my sense of humor, my attitude towards leukemia and my everyday life.

You have a huge follower base on social media! How do you use your influence – if I can say so?

It seems that everyone on social media sites are influencers – although I hate this word – but I think it is not “influential” when someone sits down with a cappuccino and takes a photo of it. I want to send a message with all my pictures, especially with my photos of my illness. The point is to have something to say about myself as a person, my pictures and my blog. And behind all these, there must be a credible person. You know, a healthy person cannot write about cancer; it’s not real. So I write about it and try to show it all, the reality of it. Many people get their blood checked after reading my blog, but what is the most important to me, and I consider it my real mission, is that I’ve made hundreds of people go and donate blood or stem cells. That’s a huge thing. An ordinary person does not even realize the value of a pouch of blood for a sick person like I used to be. It’s really life-saving and essential in recovery.

“Once, I went to the ER in my leopard coat and my pink wig just to provoke everyone.” (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

You mentioned that you also show your crazy, humorous side in your images and blog posts, even when you talk about your illness. Is this how you started dressing up and wearing wigs? Is it a kind of therapy as well?

Yes. I bought like fifteen wigs and costumes and I ordered every two-dollar crazy, corny thing from the internet. The pink wig is my favorite. Once, I went to the ER in my leopard coat and my pink wig just to provoke everyone. But I didn’t wear these to make people angry, I just felt good in these. I didn’t want to seem sad or make others feel sorry for me.

Many people say that their illness could have signaled that they were too stressed and overworked. How do you feel about this? I guess you changed a lot during this year.

You know I had just got engaged, was in the middle of family planning, had a nice apartment, loved my job and it was the happiest I’ve ever been. But I agree with what you said. Maybe I did something wrong and now I’m trying to correct it. I am trying to become a better person and re-evaluate my life. I do everything differently. A completely different girl came out of the hospital. But I’m not afraid of anything anymore. If I survived this and beat leukemia, I will survive everything. After the positive biopsy, they told me that I only had weeks left, but then I celebrated my thirtieth birthday during treatment. Dani, my good friend from the hospital, was still alive. He came to my room, we talked a lot, ate cakes, and drank children’s champagne. It was a big party. I do not mind growing older, I’m happy for every birthday and I cannot wait to have more. Because then I know I’m alive and have made it one more year.

Réka’s pictures on her wall. She will start a new life with another expedition to Venice. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

After your negative biopsy, do you dare to plan, either short or long? Would you like to be a professional photographer?

I’m sick of people who say that dreaming destroys your life. Everyone must have a dream. Of course, I would only like to work as a photographer in the future. This is my life. But I certainly need a lot of practice. I cannot wait to leave the apartment and take photos, not just of myself. Next year, I will go on the journey to Italy and then submit my application to Vogue in Milan. Dare to dream big.

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Reporting and translation by Fanni Kaszás

Photos by Vivien Cher Benkő


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