A Prisoner in His Own Home
Photographer Lisa Krantz documents one man’s struggle with obesity
Body image and health in America is a mess. Most visual media like magazines, movies, and TV make subtle to overt declarations about who is too skinny and who is too fat. Reddit’s /r/FatPeopleHate (which is exactly what it sounds like) has nearly 100,000 followers. I will not dignify that with a link.
According to the World Health Organization, 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2014, and 13% were obese. Obesity is severely misunderstood in the general population, and is often attributed to “laziness” rather than being recognized as an actual health problem.
At some point, people stopped being able to see the person beyond the condition. A common mindset is that obese people are to be judged, not to be helped.
Photojournalist Lisa Krantz wants you to know that Hector Garcia, Jr. was more than a statistic. He was a person, and he wanted his story to be known. Over the course of four years, Krantz and writer Jessica Belasco of the San Antonio Express-News created a moving portrait of Hector.
“That was always one of the most important things to me. Not ‘giving him a voice’ as we say, but actually his voice being heard,” Krantz says. “I just really wanted to tell a story, and that’s exactly what we always talk about doing, telling these untold stories.”
When Krantz first met Hector, she was immediately struck by how eager and thorough he was when it came to recounting his past, and what led him to weight he then carried.
“He could talk about it from the time he was a child. and I had never heard anyone who could articulate it in that way,” she says.
Chubby as a child, Garcia was picked on and ridiculed. He began dieting in high school but always regained the weight he had lost and more.
By his mid-30s, when he reached his peak weight, he had gastric bypass surgery and lost nearly 400 pounds but gradually regained it.
With both knees so damaged by his weight that he barely could move, Garcia mustered the determination to shed about 350 pounds again, this time through dieting and exercise, in order to have double knee replacement surgery when he was 46.
In the two years since then, as his weight approached 600 pounds yet again, Garcia’s body became as much a mental prison as a physical one.
To save others from the same pain and alienation, Garcia allowed a San Antonio Express-News photographer to follow him for the past four years to see close up the toll obesity takes.
“My life is a cautionary tale,” he said.
Krantz first met Hector through his sister, Rebecca Freed. She told Krantz that people like her brother are “prisoners in their own home.” They may have the financial resources to get help, but they lack the mobility. Sometimes the problem is vice versa. There is no easy solution.
“She just really wanted to help her brother. She thought that if there was a story he would get help,” Krantz says.
Krantz recalls her very first meeting with Hector as being similar to most of the subsequent time she spent with him. He would sit in his big chair, and Krantz would sit next to him in a folding chair. Sometimes she would take pictures, but other times she would just listen.
“It was just quote after quote of ‘Wow, that explains it on a whole new level.’” she says.
Hector was kind, open and curious. They talked about his weight problem, but they also talked about one another’s lives. They had a mutual fondness for bad reality TV. He knew as much about Krantz as she knew about him.
“It really was just a total partnership, him and I.” she says. “It wasn’t ‘Oh, I’m telling your story’ it was “You’re telling your story, I’m just taking the pictures.”
“Because I was lonely, because I was ostracized, because I was mistreated, I turned to food for comfort,” Hector said of his lifelong relationship with food.
Hector’s weight ballooned up and down most of his life, but in 2012, he saw hope on the horizon. After dropping more than 300 pounds, he could finally get knee replacement surgery.
“That was his big goal, the golden apple,” Krantz says.
Unfortunately, the surgery changed Hector’s life for the worse. He had the first two surgeries months apart, but a complication required him to undergo four operations in total.
“He never really was mobile again after that in the way that he had been before the surgeries. It was just this downward spiral.”
Obesity “strips you of your pride, it takes everything away from you,” he said. “You can’t hide it. It’s always there, it’s always in front so people always see it.”
His knees more fragile than ever, Hector retreated to old habits. He spent most of the last couple years of his life relegated to his bedroom. By late November of 2014, his health was on a steep decline. Breathing, in particular, was the most difficult for him.
Hector passed away Dec. 8, 2014, just a few hours after Krantz and a friend visited him at his home.
“It was a huge shock, because I had just been there. So that’s a hard thing to reconcile when you’re just with someone and all of a sudden they’re … they die. You can’t ever expect that. But I will say that I had started to become a lot more worried about him. I knew that it was a possibility,” Krantz says.
After Hector’s death, his story reached thousands of people, just as he hoped it would. The Huffington Post published some images from the project and got more than 10,000 likes on their Facebook page. Krantz said that, of course, some of the internet comments were cruel, but for every rude remark, there were several stories from people who emphasized with Hector and his situation.
“A lot of people are not understanding, and aren’t empathetic, and don’t care, and are so incredibly quick to judge by someone’s exterior appearance, and that is disheartening. But this story, I think, has changed some people’s views, and that is the purpose,” Krantz says.
After Hector’s story was in the Huffington Post, The Doctors, a talk show, asked Krantz how they could contact Hector’s family. Shortly after, the show flew Hector’s mother, Elena, and sister to Los Angeles. They surprised Elena with a six month weight loss package that included a personal trainer and meetings with a nutritionist. According to Krantz, Elena has already lost nearly 30 pounds.
“I made a promise to mijo,” Elena said to the San Antonio-Express News. “I’m going to lose that weight.”
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