In 2003, photographer Thilde Jensen began to get sick while living and working in New York City, according to Slate. She was diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a painful and debilitating condition that affects the immune and central nervous systems.
MCS causes pain to its sufferers when they are exposed to chemicals in things like perfume, cleaning products, car exhaust, synthetic fabrics, and even printed material. This condition is part of a broader disease known as environmental illness or EI.
Jensen was forced to leave New York, her career and her marriage behind because of her condition. She moved to upstate New York and began documenting her experience with EI as well as the experience of other sufferers by taking photographs. Those pictures became part of a series that she titled “Canaries.”
The name for the series refers to the use of canaries in coal mines. Canaries are lowered into coal mines because they are affected by environmental toxins before humans are, thus warning the miners of unsafe conditions
“You do feel like an outcast,” Jensen wrote in an email. “But then you realize you are not alone, and there is a wide network of people like you, stuck in what seems like a futuristic nightmare: a parallel dimension of pain and isolation, hard to truly comprehend unless you have been there.”
While shooting the project, Jensen visited groups of people with EI who have taken refuge in the desert. After hearing about “Canaries,” they were happy to share their stories.
“We often talk for a while before I bring out the camera,” Jensen wrote. “From listening to their stories I get a visual clue as to where the picture might exist. Sometimes it almost feels like a therapeutic session where we are together trying to make visual sense out of the specific experience.”
Jensen has been pleased with the response that the project has gotten and is happy that, through "Canaries," sufferers of EI have had their experiences shared with people who would have otherwise been unaware of the illness.