It was with I dismay that the staff of New Zealand Geographic received the news in 1997 that Peter Quinn, one of our main photographers, had been diagnosed with cancer. Since his first story for the magazine, on whitebaiting, in 1993, Peter had covered some big stories for us, including coal mining, the Main Trunk Line and Highway 35. (His work on the Opotiki Gisborne highway was later published in a book which has been shortlisted for the 1999 Montana Book Awards.)
When initial surgery and treatment appeared to have been successful, we rejoiced with Peter and his family, and readily agreed when, on the strength of his new lease on life, he asked if he could tackle the subject of cancer as an assignment.
The magazine’s deputy editor, Warren Judd, was the obvious choice for the writer. Warren, who has been closely associated with New Zealand Geographic since its earliest days, has a PhD in cell biology, and had been involved in cancer research at Harvard Medical School before leading his own cancer research group at the University of Auckland. His scientific knowledge gave us the foundation on which to build our coverage.
But it was Peter’s own brush with mortality that made this story particularly important to us.
During the 18 months it took to reach publication, we were often aware of the difficulties he was facing, both with his own health and with the challenges of illustrating this emotion-charged subject. He would sometimes spend weeks organising a particular photograph, only to have permission declined at the last moment.
That this story has finally appeared in print is due in large part to Peter’s unswerving commitment to the project.
Here, in his own words, are his reflections on what could be described as the assignment of his life.