When diagnosed with a life threatening illness, Wyatt McSpadden turned his energy toward photography to keep his spirits up and stay engaged in the world.

Below, in his own words, is Wyatt’s story. Included with the story are photos from Wyatt’s book, The Trol Factory, that emerged from the project he pursued while ill. 

To support Wyatt’s cause, he recommends making a donation to the American Cancer Society.


In late August of 2011, I was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called lymphoepithelioma. I’d never been sick in my life and now, 3 days after my 59th birthday, I get hit with the news nobody wants to hear.

After a long month waiting for a firm diagnosis, my wife and guardian angel, Nancy McMillen, and I started traveling back and forth to Houston for treatment at MD Anderson. I’d had plenty of experience at MDA, having shot there on assignment for years. In fact, many of the portraits of survivors and staff that greeted us as we walked the halls–through four months of chemo and radiation–are ones I’d taken. My final radiation treatment was 1/25/12. Three months later we returned for tests and received the incredible news that my cancer was in remission. I call that my re-birthday.

 The uncertainties of self-employment in a highly competitive field are magnified when the thing we all take for granted, good health, is unexpectedly hijacked

I’d have never made it through this trial without the love and support of family and friends both old and new. One of my great anxieties during this time was wondering how my life-long career as a photographer would survive cancer. As freelancers, we have these worries even when times are good. The uncertainties of self-employment in a highly competitive field are magnified when the thing we all take for granted, good health, is unexpectedly hijacked. Photography is the only career I’ve known since my early twenties. I fell in love with picture making then and the love continues today. Whether for myself, my family, or my clients, everyassignment becomes a personal project.

I’ve also been very lucky. During a lull in my chemotherapy, Texas Monthly’s TJ Tucker and Leslie Baldwin hired me to shoot a big story on a favorite subject, Texas BBQ. I was so grateful for this assignment, and with the help of assistants Will Phillips and Jeff Stockton, made some fine pictures for the piece. Not long afterthat, Nancy and I hunkered down in Houston for six weeks of daily radiation treatments. The following is excerpted from a piece I wrote for a personal/book project that serendipity dropped in my lap during those long weeks of wait and see.

A few years back, I had the good fortune to partner with freelance writer Suzy Banks on a magazine assignment. The event we were sent to cover was called “The Running of the Bull.” This weekend gathering, featuring tall-tale telling and all manner of exaggeration and prevarication, took place in the remote West Texas town of Eldorado. I hardly knew Suzy at that time and had never met her husband, Richard Heinichen. Lodging was scarce in this tiny burg, but Suzy had somehow managed to find a rental house outside of town and invited me to share accom modations. As it turned out, the event itself was forgettable, but not my time spent with Suzy and Richard.

One story from that weekend that stayed with me was a tale not told at the “Bull” festival. It was Suzy’s recounting of her (then 79-year-old) father’s 90-miles-each-way daily commute from the boonies between Bellville and Brenham to his place of work in Houston and back again. I couldn’t imagine it. Richard went on to describe the fantastical factory in an industrial area near downtown Houston that Bill Banks owned and operated. Richard described Bill’s company, Automation Products, Inc. (API), as a place that time had forgotten. A factory/museum/antique store, where folks—most of whom had worked there for decades—fabricated a product called the Dynatrol. I knew at that moment I wanted to meet this man and see his plant. I was already imagining the pictures I might capture there.

 It was such a gift during a stressful time to have this project to focus on and these fine folks to encourage me

Years passed. My trip to API was periodically discussed and inevitably delayed, but ironically, it was cancer that finally got me through the doors of API. In late 2011, I began six weeks of daily radiation therapy, which amounted to a single 20-minute “zap” per day, leaving my wife and myself with the rest of each day to fill. In early December, Suzy and Richard traveled to Houston to take us on the long-anticipated excursion to API, where I finally met Bill Banks and members of the API team.

Visually, the place was everything I’d hoped it would be—and more. I asked Bill if he’d allow me to come back and photograph when I felt up to it. He let me know I was welcome anytime I liked, no appointment necessary. I made four or five trips to API. Each session lasted several hours and I simply shot whatever caught my eye. It was such a gift during a stressful time to have this project to focus on and these fine folks to encourage me. And now we have this book, designed by my wife, Nancy McMillen, and written and edited by the incredible Suzy. It’s a tribute to the amazing Bill Banks, his loyal  team, and the “trol,” a device based on a simple idea for a complex task.

More images from The Trole Factory…

One Response to “Wyatt McSpadden’s personal journey”

  1. What a touching story–and terrific pictures, natch. How I wish each of us had the ability that you do of catching the very essence of ‘the thing.’

    Reply

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