In 2003, photographer Thilde Jensen was living in the hectic urban environs of New York City when she began to suffer from chronic sinus and ear infections that only kept getting worse.
One day, while waiting in traffic, she noticed a car ahead of her spewing out exhaust and simultaneously felt her throat become sore and a fever come on. It was then she knew that the pollution and chemicals around her were making her ill.
“The urban life I so carelessly had enjoyed now turned into a toxic war-zone,” she tells Business Insider.
Soon after, she was diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or Environmental Illness (EI), a condition where patients suffer chronic symptoms when in the presence of low-grade chemical exposure. Jensen joined a small group of people whose lives had become completely debilitated by the toxins present in everyday life.
As a photographer, Jensen’s immediate response to her situation was to document it with her camera. She met other MCS suffers and set out to tell their stories. Her acclaimed book of this work, titled “The Canaries,” was released this year.
Jensen shared a selection of images and her story with us.
After the initial incident with the car exhaust, Jensen's symptoms continued to get worse while she lived in the city. 'There seemed to be new triggers every day,' she says. 'Soon, the ink from a newspaper would make my head go spinning, perfume and cleaning products felt like breathing paint stripper and gave me strange tingling sensations.'
Like many sufferers of EI, Jensen was forced to abandon her job and life and move away from the city. She lived in woods of upstate New York in an open tent. She soon began to experience sensitivity to electrical objects as well, and was no longer able to use computers or phones. The scenario 'felt like a prison sentence,' Jensen says.
'For the following seven years, I would wear a respirator whenever I re-entered the man-made world,' she explains. Many others with EI shared the similar necessity.
Soon after she got sick, Jensen began to photograph her predicament and others with whom she shared symptoms, such as the man below, who is using a ultra-low radiation telephone. 'I would just photograph as a way to comprehend the surreal nightmare my life had become,' she says.
Because she herself was so deeply effected by the illness, others with the condition seemed more willing to allow her into their lives. 'People trusted me because I was an insider. They knew that I understood what they were going through and that the book would give them a voice,' she says.
They allowed Jensen into their homes, which is a very private place for someone with EI. Suffers often wrap potentially toxic things, including entire walls of their house, in aluminium foil in an effort to keep out chemicals.
After seven years of dealing with the illness, Jensen was able to overcome much of the condition, thanks to an experimental treatment. It was then that she was truly able to pursue the series in full. She traveled across the country twice, visiting the desert of the Southwest, a place where many EI patients seek refuge.
The name of the series, 'The Canaries,' refers to the historical use of canaries in coal mines as barometers of the air quality. If the canary died, the miners would know that the air was dangerously toxic and leave immediately.
'People suffering with Environmental Illness have been dubbed the human canaries, acting as the warning sign of what is to come if we continue to pollute our daily lives and the planet that is our home,' Jensen says.
Jensen says that while there are chemicals in our air, our food, and the objects we purchase at all times, there are steps that everyone can take to lessen the effects of EI. 'We can choose products that are non-toxic or less toxic and fragrance-free,' she says.
It has been reported that EI symptoms are much more tied to mental perceptions of chemical presence than the effects of these chemicals themselves. No matter the cause, the physical manifestations of the condition are severe and crippling to all effected.
Jensen feels that as both a photographer and a sufferer of EI, she has the unique ability to 'tell on otherwise untold story to a wider audience.' 'It was always my aim to create awareness about the existence of Environmental Illness,' she says.
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