Portrait of the Artist

When Richard Siemens was five years old, he would fall asleep on his parents’ lawn after summer dinners. It wasn’t until he went into a…

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Richard Siemens — Photographer, University Relations

When Richard Siemens was five years old, he would fall asleep on his parents’ lawn after summer dinners. It wasn’t until he went into a coma one evening that he discovered he had type 1 diabetes.

Richard is a photographer in University Relations — he’s worked at the university in various capacities, including teaching photography, since 1993. You have probably seen his pictures on folio.ca, The QuadThe Quad, and elsewhere around the university. Photography is a passion he has held since the age of nine, and it has paralleled his struggle with diabetes through most of his life.

“Every dime I’ve made since 1972 has been from photography,” Richard says. So when, in 2005, the doctors told Richard that he would need dialysis due to kidney failure, postponing his photography for the treatment simply wasn’t an option. “Leaving my job didn’t even occur to me,” he says. “I purposely scheduled evening runs so that I could continue working, uninterrupted.” For three and a half years, three days a week, he worked until 5:30 p.m., then walked to the hospital to dialyze until 11 at night.

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Richard in 2007. A protective boot shields a toe amputation resulting from gangrene (those with diabetes are at higher risk for amputations).

“I’m often my own test subject, so I have a visual diary,” Richard says. “And sometimes I look back and go: ‘Really? You were working full time when you were going through that?’ It does amaze me.”

It was during this period that he took on a special project: in 2007, the Alberta Diabetes Institute opened at the U of A. To commemorate the launch, Richard shot a portrait series of individuals with diabetes — including a self-portrait that now acts as a reminder of the challenges he faced.

A decade later, at the 10th anniversary of the Alberta Diabetes Institute, Richard has repeated the Portraits of Diabetes project. Once again, the series includes a self-portrait featuring his Hasselblad camera — his primary camera until the digital revolution, and one he still uses today.

In the decade that separates the two portrait series, Richard underwent a simultaneous pancreas-kidney transplant. He’ll take immunosuppressant drugs indefinitely, and his doctor recommends daily insulin injections to give his pancreas a break. But he says that people with diabetes don’t want to be seen as victims; the disease is just another part of their existence.

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Richard’s 2017 Portraits of Diabetes series. Read their stories.

“The media tends to go on about ‘poor little Johnny has to take 40,000 injections in his life.’ Ultimately insulin is what keeps those with diabetes alive, as does exercise and diet,” Richard says. “It’s all about balance. Mostly, it’s a pain in the butt, but it could be worse. Hemodialysis is the same, but on the next level. Yeah, nobody wants to do it, but it kept me alive. Insulin, pumps, pills, transplants — they’re all just treatments that for some lucky ones might keep them alive long enough for a cure.”

About Richard Siemens

Richard a photographer in Marketing and Communications — University Relations. A full-time professional photographer since 1974, Richard ran his own photography business for 18 years. He first began working at the University of Alberta in Visual Communication and Design, where he taught courses in photography. He has since worked with U of A Photo Services, Creative Services, and University Relations, and has won several awards for his photography.

See Richard’s latest Portraits of Diabetes.Portraits of Diabetes.

Read Richard’s story.Richard’s story.