Of a lens and love: Angelo and Jennifer Merendino

The Faces of project1979, #3

photo courtesy of Claudia Hehr Photography

In August 2011, Annika Kaye, a former Wheatone (my all-female, rockin’ Wheaton College a capella group) emailed me telling me about a photographic contest her friend was participating in. I would have voted regardless but when I saw the material everything in my day, in that moment stopped. Chills, a  jaw drop but most importantly I felt, well, ALIVE. That is what true art does. Angelo Merendino and his wife Jennifer are artists the kick you in the pants with their honesty and love, transmitted in unapologetic, epic photographs documenting courage. This un-cinematic bravery demonstrates the real-life underpinnings of a relationship that accepted the call to live their moments-dark, shining and intimate-with purpose and vision. They invited the world into their lives and we are changed because of it.

Annika wrote this to me in an email following Jen’s death:

Jen has taught me the true meaning of the words “breast cancer awareness”. It’s obviously not about pink ribbons and teddy bears. It’s not a cute disease. It’s a monstrous f@#$*&r. When my mom battled pretty serious melanoma a few years back, Jen was unbelievably empathetic and supportive. She befriended my mom and was really the only person who could tell her what to expect both physically and emotionally. She even lent her the very same shawl that she used to cover her head when she lost her hair. At the same time, Angelo has taught me so much about love and commitment, hope and endurance. –Annika Kaye

My interview was with Angelo but this “Faces of project1979” belongs to Jennifer Merendino as well. Just to be clear: I am completely honored and humbled for having had this opportunity.

Could you describe what you do? What’s unfolding for you in the next few months? I am a photographer living in New York. My earlier career was as a musician (I am a drummer). In 2000, when I was living in Nashville a former girlfriend handed me her camera and with the sound of the shutter I was on a different wavelength. I moved back to Ohio (I am from Akron), went to school for photography in Cleveland, bailed school when I got a record deal,  and then met Jen. It was love at first site-life threw me a different hand when she came into my life. Jen moved to NYC a month after we met. Later I moved out there and in 2007 we got married. In 2008 Jen was diagnosed with cancer and when things got serious we wanted to get the story out to family in Ohio through photography. It happened naturally, like the way we were together. Jen started it all. If she believed something, she did it. The camera couldn’t be in the way: I had to be a part of what’s going on and have the camera read. The photography didn’t change her-she felt it was important to show to her family, friends and to others whose lives had been touched by cancer.

She connected people, she shared what she learned.  Now I have a mission with these photos-it’s Jennifer’s legacy now. I am taking things slowly, taking time to decide the next step in the process. It’s all new. A book of photographs is on my list as are exhibits in places where I feel the photos and the subject matter are appropriate to the venue.

Where do you draw your inspiration? Jen. She was a friend She taught me to love life to the fullest.

Theme song/album/band of your childhood? The Clash because punk rock made you feel on a gut level. At age 17/18 my best friend and I would drive around Akron, Ohio listening to the whole recording of Legend over and over on the tape player on our way to shooting pool. I also remember when my older sister Filomena would always play “Puff the Magic Dragon” in her room when I was 5 or 6 years old. My parents would be reading the newspaper and I’d get two or three good listens in 2 or three listens in.

What’s been your best day/The best part of your day? Aside from Jen saying  that she’d marry me?

When you look back at the decades of your life, what do you feel makes you proud to be part of our generation? We got a bad rap from the get go-we were born in a transitional time but we’ve made the most of what’s around us. Maybe we’ve been a bit rebellious but our actions say “You’ve doubted us but we’re still working hard and doing good work.”

If you could get one thing back from your past, what would it be?  In Akron there was this bridge called the Viaduct  that connected my neighborhood with downtown that was a bit dangerous at the time and has since been torn down. When I was five I had a yellow tee shirt of that bridge…I’d like to have some tee shirts from where I grew up.

Best piece of advice or given: Jen said two things. The first the night we came home with hospice. We knew the inevitable was going to happen soon. We used to tell each other the worst part of our day and the best part of the day at night. The worst part would be chemo or test results or a depressing day and the best of the day was something we did to each other. On that day I only asked “what did you love the most about today?” And she said “I loved it all.” A few days later the apartment was filled with people. She was on a lot of pain meds. I asked her:  “How do you touch so many people?” and she said:  “They’ve all touched me.”  She let people in. When you were in, you weren’t getting out. She loved with all of her heart.

This is some scary crap, it’s too close right now so I need to focus on me. And I need all of you to focus on yourselves so we can be strong for each other-Jennifer Merendino




5 Responses to “Of a lens and love: Angelo and Jennifer Merendino”
  1. Ana Turck says:

    Amazing and poignant! Thank You for this great piece.

  2. mbrb1 says:

    Light perpetual…

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] made me tear up, especially since I only met her through interviewing her friend Angelo Merendino a few months back. Most importantly, it made me realize how lucky we are to be connected in this […]

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