When Deborah Triplett was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in October, her response was, “What have I got to do to kick its ass?” That “do whatever it takes” attitude has followed her throughout her life.
In her younger days, desperate to leave her hometown of Elkin, North Carolina, she became a New York City-based flight attendant. In the days when music videos were becoming popular, Triplett jumped at the chance to work for Playboy in California to learn video.
When she decided to become a photographer in the 1980s, she started with the grunt work as a first assistant to a prominent Charlotte photographer. When she got the opportunity to photograph a wedding, something she’d never done before, she took it. Her mentality, combined with candid poses and her use of black and white photography, propelled her to a prominent career in wedding photography.
Triplett, 70, is also the woman behind Yard Art Day, a community-wide and grassroots art exhibit she started in 2012. Each Labor Day, front yards, windows and balconies across Charlotte and other cities are decorated with art created by the people who live there. As a protest of the political climate, her 2017 installation featured dozens of women in red robes and white bonnets, in the style of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Her latest challenge, fighting cancer, was the fight for her life. She approached it like everything else.
The cancer was gone by January, after 33 radiation and 18 chemotherapy treatments. Triplett had preventative brain radiation and will get routine scans for the rest of her life. She hasn’t shied away from sharing the realities of cancer and its treatments via social media. When her hair began to fall out, she posted a video of her head being shaved.
Triplett answered five questions for CharlotteFive:
(1) Why have you made your battle with cancer public on social media?
“I realized that people don’t really talk about cancer. A lot of the stories about cancer can be very negative. Oddly enough, when I go for treatments, the other patients who have cancer are smiling. They’re happy. You kind of get on with your life. It’s not the morose wringing your hands that it used to be.
“I want people to see that you can have a positive attitude. In fact, my doctors were medically convinced that my positive attitude had helped cure me. I’m equally convinced of it. I don’t use the word sick a lot. I say the word “cancer” openly. I try not to dwell on the negative aspect of it.”
(2) Why is Yard Art Day important to you?
“I thought, what if people could put art in their front yards? Wouldn’t it be great to have a day where everyone creates something in their front yard and there’s no judgement about it? It would help people get to other neighborhoods in Charlotte they’d never go into otherwise or meet people in their own neighborhoods they never talk to.
“We were front-yard kids. There’s something about the front yard. I even have this philosophy that if people were in their front yards more, the world would be a safer place. Maybe that’s naive of me.”
(3) What’s your photography style?
“It is simple, clean, uncluttered, no props and direct. People often remark that whether it is a person or a pet that I manage to make some soulful connection through their eyes making contact with me through my camera lens.
“I go by the K.I.S.S. rule—keep it simple stupid. Lighting simple, posing simple and instead make it about the connection of the subject to the camera and me. I think it is my love of people that has driven me all these years. Certainly it was what initially made me want to be a photographer, and to this day it is my joy—that first contact with someone, that connection. Human to human.”
(4) What did you do for the magazine Skirt Charlotte?
“I was the sole photographer for Skirt Charlotte. It was the best gig I ever had because I not only had complete creative freedom and great editors, but [I] got to meet some of the most interesting people in and around Charlotte.
“One of my favorite monthly assignments to do for Skirt was “Men In Skirts,” where various men from all walks of life in Charlotte were profiled, and I photographed them in a skirt. In the beginning, men were shy about posing in skirts. But once the word got out about how much fun it was and that people loved them doing this, men were asking to pose. I felt like Skirt really cared about content, and I loved that the images were all in black and white.”
(5) What advice do you give others?
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Be forgiving of yourself. Know it’s going to pass. Nothing is permanent. Relationships don’t stay the same. The bank account doesn’t stay the same. The job doesn’t stay the same. Your home doesn’t stay the same. That’s not a bad thing. Change is good.”