March 19, 2015 3:28 PM EDT

For this week’s report on the cancer gap in the U.S., TIME turned to contract photographer Christopher Morris to shoot its cover and the portraits of two women —Marcia Stiefel of North Dakota and MaryAnn Anselmo of New Jersey— who suffer from the same form of cancer.

For Morris, the first step was “to have some deeper understanding of who is the subject, all the while keeping in mind the client’s needs,” says Morris. “When I see work by Nadav Kander, Pari Dukovic and Stephan Vanfleteren, I become totally mesmerized by the utmost quality in their concept and execution. It’s frightening sometimes, [there’s] so much to learn.”

“With this TIME assignment, I was handed the names of two women both with similar brain tumors that were undergoing treatment in complete opposite parts of the country, one in New York, the other in North Dakota,” says Morris, a member of the VII Photo agency. “I love photographing people in their natural environment. With Marcia in North Dakota, I just closed my eyes and could envision her standing in the plains of North Dakota, in a very solitary pose with the prairie grass,” he says. “With MaryAnn, who is an accomplished jazz singer, I could feel her in an elegant way standing in an examination room waiting for her doctor.”

Throughout the shoot, despite the differences between the two subjects, Morris had one thought in mind for them both: he wanted his portraits to convey dignity, hope and beauty.

Christopher Morris is a TIME contract photographer and a member of the VII Photo agency.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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