Annie Wells - From An Arm's Length

L.A. Times photographer Annie Wells never saw herself as an artist – just a person with a camera and a need to understand. Yet her photographs tell such powerful stories that in 1997, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a shot that captured the anguished face of a teenage girl being rescued from a terrifying flash flood in Northern California. One moment later and the girl’s face would have disappeared – but through Annie’s eyes, we see hope come to life. This is Annie’s style – not just the drama, but the irrepressible spirit of someone who overcomes adversity and stands up to fate.

In 2002, Annie began work on a story she never thought about telling – her own. She was diagnosed with breast cancer – and found to have the BRCA2 gene that killed her mother and would eventually kill her sister. She bought a Nikon Coolpix digital camera because it could be held at arm’s length and swiveled so she could photograph herself. Though she photographed each stage of her experience, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the resulting photographs are completely unexpected: beautiful and celebratory, tender and compassionate. Yet so unflinching they portray images that even the oncology nurses had never seen. The images are a brilliant and deeply moving paradox from which Annie creates something unified, healing and whole.

Annie exposes the tragically ordinary experience of cancer through a lens of extra-ordinary talent and daring. Not many prize-winning journalists would risk revealing so much. But this is not a “cancer” story. It is a journey of self-discovery that will inspire every person who never knew what they were capable of.

In “Annie Wells – From An Arm’s Length,” documentarian Joan Brooker-Marks brings to Annie Wells her own unique ability to see a person in ways few others know. Joan has proven her skills with such disparate characters as Larry Flynt, and his life-long obsession with the First Amendment in the acclaimed “Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone,” and an unforgettable group of elderly mah jongg players in “We Got Us.” Both of these award-winning films have screened in dozens of festivals and achieved commercial distribution. Both speak to diverse audiences with heart and integrity.

The film will allow us to know an Annie that transcends her own photographs, while letting the photographs create a multi-layered style that incorporates Annie’s news photos, archival photos and footage as well as present-day images and interviews. The documentary takes its key from Annie herself, whose work ultimately has a way of going beyond the photos to the psyche and beyond the scene to the soul.