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One Husband’s Loving Portrait of His Wife and Her Illness

Rikard Osterlund has photographed his wife, Zara, for thirteen years. “There is an image taken on holiday in Sardinia,” he tells me. “I remember looking at her and thinking ‘How did I get so lucky to be right here, with Zara, sharing this moment?'” Zara is an artist and a poet. She admires Frida Kahlo and enjoys science fiction. Her husband describes her as “a very stylish geek.” Zara also has fibromyalgia, a condition that causes fatigue and all-over physical pain, and hypermobility syndrome, meaning her joints can become “loose” and slip out of normal range. She has OCD and depression. Osterlund’s photo book Look, I’m wearing all the colours, currently being funded on Kickstarter, is a candid record of their shared history.

Zara’s illnesses are not widely discussed, and when she was younger, she sometimes chose to ascribe her pain to arthritis to avoid the need to explain. At times, Zara has to remain in bed and has difficulty with daily activities. On hard days, her husband cuts up her food. The physical pain can also trigger bouts of anxiety. “I try to understand how the pain feels and how it affects her, but in the end, it is impossible,” Osterlund admits. In the place of fully understanding, he makes pictures.

“Zara is not her illness,” the photographer stresses. “We have both learnt to live with it being there, but it is not what defines her.” Zara defies her suffering by surrounding herself with colorful things. “She collects brightly coloured enamel or melamine mugs and beakers she drinks from,” the photographer explains. “She loves kitsch, but also if her hands go in to spasm and she drops things, they won’t break.” She has a wardrobe of vibrant, playful clothing. “Often on the days she is in the most pain she is at her most colourful,” Osterlund says. The title of the book is a frequent refrain in both of their lives.

The photographer and his muse agreed on the importance of documenting the painful moments as well as the joyful ones. “I wanted it to look like life, which means capturing everything,” Osterlund adds. Zara chose not to look at the book before the proof copy was complete. “Zara was determined not to interfere,” the photographer says. “She knew it had to be my story, my perspective of our relationship. It is a very strong and selfless thing to do.” Osterlund sees his wife’s conditions as a “third person” in their lives. And perhaps, in a way, his camera has become a fourth. When the days get confusing and blurred, the photographs are a concrete and unmoving reminder of their past and a beacon for their future. After this book, he will continue to record their lives; “How could I stop photographing her?” he asks. The book’s dedication reads, “To Zara, For all the adventures still to come.”

“People keep asking me what I thought when I first saw Look, I’m wearing all the colours, thinking that it must have been hard,” Zara says now. “I think it is the most beautiful and romantic thing I have ever seen, full of hope and love because, despite all of the horrible things we have had to go through, we have always done it together.” The photograph from Sardinia appears mid-way through the book. “Zara went snorkeling for the first time on that holiday after I taught her to swim,” Osterlund remembers. “She was happier than I’d ever seen her.”

Support Look, I’m wearing all the colours on Kickstarter.

All images © Rikard Osterlund

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