[Editor's Note: Long-time concert photographer Andrew Youssef found out two years ago that he had stage IV colon cancer. In that time, he has continued to shoot tons of music events, on top of other freelance work and working a day job at a hospital, of all places. As he continues to fight for his life, this series allows him to tell his story in his own words.]
Before I was sick, I used to run marathons. It was something that I had wanted to check off my bucket list, and the sense of exhilaration and joy after completing my first marathon was overwhelming. I never ran in high school or in college, and I was by no means fast, but I eventually got addicted to running, and it was a great way to listen to hours of music on my iPod shuffle.
The one thing running marathons taught me was the importance of mental toughness and how to fool yourself that you are actually running 26.2 miles. While you have to listen to your body, your mind and will power are powerful allies, and they can push you past the finish line. Ironically, all the bands I used to listen to on my running mixes, now constitute my chemotherapy listening mixes.
When it comes to shooting Coachella, my prior training in running marathons helped me vastly when faced with the daunting task of darting around in the desert heat with pounds of gear slung over my shoulder. Photographing Coachella is a privilege and something that often ranks as one of the best experiences of the year. Being able to photograph so many amazing bands over three days as well as seeing other photographer friends has provided me with some of my favorite life moments.
Shooting Coachella is more like an ultramarathon. You have to carry two cameras with lenses that weigh roughly ten pounds. Also, factor in the scorching heat of 90-plus-degree weather while walking many miles across the polo fields, and you have a task that is extremely taxing on the healthiest of people. I've only postponed my chemotherapy by a couple of days a few times over the course of two years, and Coachella is worth pushing it back a few days. One has to be at full capacity in order to endure the sunlight and general soreness.
Another worrisome factor is that my chemotherapy makes me very sensitive to the sunlight, so I am doused from head to toe in sunscreen and wearing the most comfortable clothes. Comfort and safety trump looking fashionable. I used to joke that shooting Coachella probably took a few months off of your life, but it was totally worth it. Fully understanding that shooting concerts and seeing my favorite bands was keeping me alive, I was determined to shoot Coachella in 2012. Never one to make things easy on myself, I decided to shoot both weekends and shoot a show the night before both.
For the first weekend, I photographed Radiohead at the Santa Barbara Bowl and then proceeded to drive 230 miles to Coachella and stayed up all night to edit the photos and type up a review. Probably not the smartest idea, but my theory since my diagnosis is to squeeze as much out of life as possible since I feel the clock ticking away. The second weekend was supposed to be easier as I shot Pulp at the Fox Theater in Pomona the night before Coachella. The unforeseen event while driving after the Pulp show was that my check engine light came, on and I had to turn around and head back home and borrow a car in the middle of the night.
The weather gods were definitely in my favor for the first weekend as it was unseasonably cool. I distinctly remember walking to the tents later in the evening on the first night to shoot M83, and a sense of calmness and boost of adrenaline hit me in that I felt OK, and I knew I was going to survive shooting Coachella. It still remains as one of my prouder moments since my diagnosis that a Stage IV colon cancer patient successfully shot both weekends of Coachella and lived to tell about it. The hard part was getting chemotherapy the day after Coachella on a few hours of sleep and rapidly editing photos with one hand since I was hooked up to an IV. I still shake my head in disbelief.