When Ken Kotch was young, he used to tell his friends that he had a “broken pancreas” to explain his type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed in 1988 at eight years old, initially Kotch had no idea what it all meant. Describing his pancreas as “broken” just made sense to him at the time
Instead of sending Kotch to a sleep-over camp with his older brother and sister as planned before his diagnosis, his parents enrolled him at Camp Nejeda near his home in New Jersey. “It was a life-changing experience,” Kotch says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for camp, and I still go back to volunteer.”
Maybe Kotch’s strong desire to give back to the diabetes community was born during that first experience at camp, or maybe it emerged later from his observations as a photographer. Or maybe it came because he got tired of the word “can’t.” Last January, Kotch was sitting in a coffee shop eating a cookie when a woman he knew walked in and said, “You can’t eat that! You have diabetes!”
For Kotch, it was an ah-ha moment. “I thought, what can I do as a photographer to change this perception? I realized that I could make photos of people who don’t let diabetes slow them down. I set up a Facebook page to flesh out the idea, and the next week I had 200 emails.”
Various social media sites, like Kickstarter.com, a site that funds artistic projects, and Facebook, helped Kotch generate interest in his idea of photographing diabetic people saying “Yes, we can,” and raise enough money to get the project started. In July of 2011, Kotch packed his car and headed west. “My original goal was to photograph 25 people living with diabetes and make an e-book, but I quickly realized that this needed to be a book you could hold in your hands,” he says.
Kotch wants to put his book into the hands of people recently diagnosed with diabetes. There, they can see the faces and hear the stories of people like John Ryan, a long-distance motorcyclist who has ridden from Alaska to Florida and holds the record for riding that distance in the shortest time. John has lived with type 1 diabetes for 35 years and says he wasn’t about to let diabetes stop him from doing what he wanted to do-ride.
Another subject is Alycia Walty, who always knew that she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up and wasn’t about to let her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes stop her. Working with underserved and undereducated populations in Kentucky, Walty looks at her patients with a “we can figure this out” attitude.
“There are so many people I want to tell you about,” Kotch says, explaining that the project is ongoing and that he has gotten more out of the experience than he imagined.
But he’s not going to stop there. As a former educator in Boston public schools, his next step is to increase diabetes education for students. Remembering how hard it was for him to describe diabetes to his friends when he was in middle school, Kotch wants to go into the classroom and talk about healthy living.
Imagine a world in which diabetes doesn’t mean a life full of “can’ts.” Instead of running into someone in a coffee shop who says, “You can’t eat that,” what if, years down the road, we will start hearing the words, “Yes, you can.” Wouldn’t that be nice?