A new photographic exhibition set to travel the world is startlingly undoing those pink ribbons the world uses to remind people that breast cancer is devastatingly prevalent. But unlike the ribbons that are easy to ignore, The Scar Project presents an arresting visual truth about breast cancer: it is horrifying, but a disturbing beauty is evident in those who’ve had the courage to face it. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Like most people, David Jay (main photo) thought that breast cancer was a mature woman’s disease. That’s until a close friend of his was diagnosed with it at the age of 29. “She had just gotten married and had a baby and it was pretty shocking because here was this strong, healthy woman – the last women on earth you’d ever think would get breast cancer. I didn’t even know you could get breast cancer at that age and probably, like most people, thought of it more as your mother or grandmother’s disease. You don’t hear about women in their twenties getting it.”
A fashion photographer based in New York, Jay’s friend was diagnosed and within two weeks had a mastectomy, her lymph nodes removed and was in chemotherapy. “It was awful, and as the months went by and she started to heal, I told her I wanted to take her picture, because that is how I deal with my stuff as a photographer.” The result was a beautifully disturbing photograph that Jay says he took more for his own necessity to make sense of the event. “It hadn’t occurred to me that she would get something out of the process, but it turns out she did.”
Jay’s friend asked the photographer whether he’d take photographs of the other women with whom she was conducting chemotherapy, and Jay agreed. Word spread and over the course of the next three years close on a hundred women would journey across the world to be photographed by Jay for what is now known as The Scar Project.
A series of large-scale portraits of young breast cancer survivors, The Scar Project is shocking and arresting because of its raw and unflinching representation of young women who have been scarred by a life-threatening disease. A project that helps to raise funds for outreach and research, The Scar Project is proving an epiphany in what it means to women battling with issues of identity after having had a mastectomy.
“There are so many emotions and so many layers with this process, and I don’t want to speak on behalf of all the women, but from my perspective it is a big moment of acceptance for the women. They know that these pictures aren’t going to go into a draw somewhere. They know they are going to be up for the world to see and I think they think to themselves ‘What has happened to me is terrible, horrific, unimaginable, but this is me now and I am not going to hide’.”
The women photographed in the project are between 18 and 35 and what’s remarkable about the project is that it is no pink ribbon. It isn’t some abstracted symbol that’s easy to ignore and from which you just move on. The photographs are confrontational, gut-wrenching and evoke very powerful responses. The project’s Facebook page is a testament to their power.
“Thank you for showing that we are beautiful. I was 35 when I found out I had stage 2 breast cancer. I cannot tell you how proud I am of these women and their courage,” reads one Facebook comment while another confesses: “I was diagnosed with third stage breast cancer at the age of 32 while pregnant with my daughter. I had a bilateral mastectomy followed by chemo, radiation, and latisimus flap reconstructions. This left my entire torso, front and back, full of scars. For a few years I resented the scars because I thought of them as ‘…vanity scars’. 9 years later I now look at them as my badges of honor. Your work is beautiful. Thank you for honoring these women.”
The project’s exhibition premiered in New York and is set to travel the world, and then there’s the book which is used as a fund-raising vehicle. “For these young women, having their portraits taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease,” says Jay. “It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride.”
Importantly, the project is unapologetically putting what’s been hidden by those little pink ribbons centre stage. It’s created a brave conversation, a confessional community and a powerful paradigm for young (and older) women to reclaim that sense of self often lost to what is a horrific disease. DM
View The Scar Project online.
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