Photographer Thilde Jensen’s story starts rather typically. She moved to New York City in 1997 to pursue a career as a photographer, and for while things were going pretty well. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts, fell in love, got married and was getting editorial work with Newsweek and other magazines. Then, something very strange happened: she started getting sick. “I started to just not feel totally right,” she says. “I would have fevers in the summer… and I would get sore throats, and have constant sinus infections.”
Thilde was able to live with it for a while, but in 2003 things started to get worse, fast. It seemed like everything in Thilde’s environment was making her sick. Her symptoms were being triggered by car exhaust, perfume, air freshener, cleaning products, magazine pages, even the smell of the film in her camera.
She did some research and determined she had something called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS– a disorder that makes a person extremely sensitive to all kinds of synthetic chemicals. “You might have a tolerance of one-hundered percent which is normal … but a person who is extremely sensitive might only have one percent of that tolerance. Just a few molecules of some kind of chemicals in a room is enough to knock [them] out and go into extreme reactions.”
These reactions, Thilde says, range from head aches and sinus infections to anaphylactic shock. So, as her symptoms got worse, she had to start wearing a respirator and eventually decided that she had to move out of New York City.
Thilde moved to upstate New York where chemicals were not as abundant. But she didn’t immediately improve. For a period her symptoms were so severe that she had to stop driving and use a special phone because she’d developed sensitivities to the electro-magnetic waves emitted by many household electronics. It was during this frightening period that Thilde began photographing her experience, and the experiences of other people suffering from MCS. She called the project Canaries.
Since that time, Thilde has recovered, but she’s still working on her Canaries project. I spoke with her recently over the phone about her photographs, her subjects and some of the medical controversy around MCS.
Thilde is running a Kickstarter project to finance her travels for the final leg of Canaries. She hopes to visit other areas around the United States where people suffer from MCS, including “wifi refugees” — people who are extremely sensitive to wireless radio signals. You can support the project HERE.
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