Writer: Jody Gifford
At just 28 years old, Des Moines photographer Ryan Morrison already has traveled the world to help others, whether building a rock bridge in Kenya or teaching teachers in Thailand. He not only does the hands-on work on these mission trips, he also documents them with his camera, intent on telling people’s stories through his lens.
As if that isn’t enough, Morrison does all this while struggling with an illness that could one day take away his ability to see, hear and even walk.
But he says helping those less fortunate keeps him focused on the present, crowding out worrisome thoughts of the future. “As a photographer, you need to be in the moment,” says Morrison, who has sought out inspiring subjects since first picking up a camera as a seventh-grader. “You need to be aware of what you’re feeling and what you’re capturing and what you’re seeing, and how that story is being told.
“I don’t think I engaged with that process before,” he adds. “I took every moment for granted. I try not to any more because those are moments that will never come back. It’s given me a different perspective, and it’s also given me an appreciation for the mindfulness practice that photography is.”
Morrison’s perspective comes as he faces the hovering specter of debilitating illness. In 2011, after experiencing weakness in his left hand, doctors at the Mayo Clinic determined that Morrison had intraneural perineurioma, or small tumors in the nerves. At the time, his was one of only 31 cases ever reported.
Unlike other types of tumors, Morrison’s aren’t treatable by chemotherapy or radiation and could eventually cause severe nerve damage, making his future as a photographer uncertain.
“The hard part is, if I feel a tingle, it could be nothing—or it could be something huge,” he says. “That’s where I’m at right now.”
It’s not the first time he’s battled a medical mystery. Morrison was weeks into his freshman year of college when he experienced excruciating pain and swelling in his left testicle. Doctors and specialists poked, prodded and tested him for everything from skin disorders to cancer. Nothing came of it.
After nine months without a diagnosis, Morrison finally got one from the Mayo Clinic: The source of his pain was a rare flesh-eating virus.
“The best way that he (the doctor) could describe it at the time was that it was like a tornado went through but you’ve never seen a tornado in your life,” Morrison says. “You just go to the next town over to grab some groceries, you come back, everything is gone, and you have no idea what happened. He’s like, ‘There’s nothing living, there’s nothing there. It’s just like your town is wiped. That’s essentially what I felt like once we got in there. We literally have just never seen anything like it.’ ”
Recovery wasn’t swift and, since that initial diagnosis, Morrison has been plagued by other health-related issues including heart problems, rapid weight loss, and numbness in his extremities. Explanations have always been hard to come by.
In spite of his medical challenges, Morrison remains optimistic. In addition to Kenya and Thailand, he and his wife, Alyssa, have been on mission trips for churches and nonprofit organizations to South Africa and Cambodia, among other locales. On an upcoming trip to Ghana, they plan to work in an orphanage.
His optimism and his deep faith continue to fuel his passion for life and photography. No matter the diagnosis, he says there’s still so much more to be done without dwelling on illness or death.
“It could come tomorrow,” he acknowledges. “You still have that conversation in your head.” But more importantly, he says, “you have to get yourself up in the morning and sort of reaffirm that—you know what?—I have another day. Let’s do this.”
To view more photos or for more information, visit ryanmorrisonphoto.com or find him on Facebook and Instagram at Ryan Morrison Photo.