I was introduced to The SCAR Project, shot by New York fashion photographer, David Jay, by Emily, the woman whose image appears on the book cover and poster. In the photo she is naked from the waist up and very pregnant, with a mastectomy scar where a breast once was. Despite this, she is stunning. Beautiful, powerful and dignified.
Shot over the course of three years, The SCAR Project is a series of portraits of 17- to 35-year-old women at various stages of breast cancer treatment. The portraits are shot both in the studio and on location. And in contrast to David Jay’s fashion work, use a lighting style that is intended to reveal the depths rather than enhance the surface or conceal imperfections.
In his words, “The series chronicles the raw physical and emotional artifacts of this devastating disease and provides the viewer an honest, intimate portal into lives far removed from simple pink ribbons.”
I know firsthand the devastating effects of a breast cancer diagnosis, especially when one is young—the nearly unfathomable physical losses coupled with social, personal and financial challenges. And how dissociating it feels that this side of it is rarely discussed in the media.
Yet I have seen, in myself and others, great resilience and courage despite the suffering, along with a dignity rooted in recognizing who one is unrelated to the outer values of our culture. A new determination takes hold, to live life from this place rather than from a place of defeat; and the acknowledgment that life has changed forever, and the feelings that go with this, are included because they are the basis for this transformation. Art can be a gentle or not so gentle reminder that there is more to life than it appears. Some art summons us to a new vantage point with beauty, some with our common humanity. With The SCAR Project David Jay has done both.
POP: Can you describe what first compelled you to photograph breast cancer survivors?
I never intended to shoot The SCAR Project. It evolved very organically after a dear young friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within two weeks she’d had a mastectomy. Paulina was 28. A beautiful, strong, young woman. I had taken her picture a thousand times, since she was 17. I saw her soon after her surgery and knew I would have to shoot her again.
I took the picture because, perhaps, as a photographer, taking pictures is my way of confronting, understanding, and accepting the things I see.
For full interview, please click on link below.
POP: You have been a fashion photographer for over a decade. As opposed to creating hyper-idealized portrayals of women, you spent the last few years capturing the physical imperfections of breast cancer survivors for The SCAR Project. Did this prove challenging?
I struggled shooting The SCAR Project. I was torn. I wanted the pictures to be raw, honest, sincere. Yet I knew why the subjects had come—they wanted something beautiful. They had already suffered greatly and although I desperately wanted to serve them, I knew in my heart that compromising the visual integrity of The SCAR Project for the sake of easily digested beauty would serve no one. Certainly not the people I hoped to be impacted by the images, the public at large who remain blissfully unaware of the risk or reality of this disease… anesthetized by pink ribbons and fluffy, pink teddy bears.
POP: You’ve taken dozens of images of breast cancer survivors, of all these images, which has impacted you the most and why?
Perhaps the picture of Sara, the redheaded girl with tears running down her face. The shoot was going well, smoothly. Laughter. The pictures looked honest, good. I was pleased with the images we had captured. I loaded the pictures into the computer and called Sara over to look. She came and stood behind me in silence. Then tears. Mine too. I grabbed the camera again, “Now, we take pictures.”
There’s something about photography that’s very real. We’re so accustomed to seeing ourselves in a mirror but that reflection is actually reversed. A photograph isn’t. That’s why it’s often shocking to see yourself in a photograph—it’s not what you see in the mirror every day. It’s what everyone else sees. In that moment, Sara came face to face with herself. She’d had a double mastectomy in her mid-20s. It was shocking.
POP: Having done The Scar Project, has your definition of beauty changed?
Not so much my definition of beauty, but hopefully my ability to capture it. There is something so painfully beautiful in humanity. A beauty that transcends the glossy, mass-produced images force-fed by popular media. We recognize it instantly. The human condition. Hope, despair, love, loss, courage, fear. Such fragile beauty.
POP: If you could change one thing about how society and the fashion industry defines beauty, what would that be and why?
I’m not sure the definition of beauty needs to be changed. More important is an individual’s reaction to that definition. One need understand that the images they see in the magazines are not meant to be a mirror to judge themselves against; not meant to be taken literally. They are meant to be enjoyed. To be feasted upon. To stimulate and seduce. They are fantasy presented as reality. Much like a Hollywood movie and created in much the same way—the finished product appearing seamless, effortless, real.
POP: What prepares you for the emotion that you see in the breast cancer survivors that you photograph?
There is no way to prepare oneself for such powerful, raw emotion. The best I can do as a photographer (and as a man) is to try and create an environment where that emotion can be safely expressed….and be prepared to capture it on film when it is.
POP: Has the experience with The Scar Project changed the way you relate to women?
It has only further validated my respect for them. Strong and courageous, with love and humility. I am very glad to be a man but they really are a superior gender!
POP: Were women ever hesitant to explore such a serious and intimate subject with you?
No, it is why they have come. Shy? Often. Embarrassed? Perhaps. But they know why they are there. They know these pictures will not be hidden away in a drawer somewhere. They know they will be displayed for the world to see. Perhaps they think, “What has happened to me is terrible, horrific, unimaginable….but this is me now and I will not hide.” They want to be seen. They need to be seen.
POP: I read that women made pilgrimages to your New York City studio from all across the United States to be photographed. What about the studio sessions do you think drew your subjects to you?
For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent a personal victory over this terrifying disease. In some small way 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.
POP: The SCAR Project’s tag-line is “breast cancer is not a pink ribbon.” Why did you decide to go that route?
Tens of thousands of people have viewed these images and I have yet to meet anyone who has said they previously knew what breast cancer looked like. Really looked like. In our society breast cancer is hidden away behind a little pink ribbon. The public needs to be educated.
Many women battling breast cancer dislike the pink ribbon. They resent the commercialization of breast cancer that it represents. One of the SCAR Project subjects said to me, “If a man got prostate cancer, do you think someone would give him a pink t-shirt and teddy bear?” It (unintentionally) diminishes something that is horrific, disfiguring, and deadly. A pink herring.
POP: Some might say these images are disturbing. Is that an acceptable way of looking at them?
It can be disturbing for the viewer. Uncomfortable. I once read it described as “unflinching.” Reality is not always pretty. There is no right or wrong way to view the pictures. Whatever your reaction is, is your reaction. I can’t control how people perceive them. I can only hope that they take something positive away from them.
POP: Along with awareness, what else do you want to accomplish through this?
The SCAR Project ultimately isn’t even about breast cancer. It’s about compassion, understanding, humanity, acceptance. It’s about giving your attention, giving love and being aware of how powerful these things are, how deeply they are needed….by all of us.
POP: What do you think The SCAR Project captured that resonated with so many people?
We look at the pictures and a transference occurs. We feel their pain. Their fear. Sadness, hope, joy. We recognize the vulnerability… the fragile, heart-wrenching beauty of humanity. We recognize ourselves.
I asked EMILY about her experience being part of The SCAR Project
When I heard about the SCAR project I immediately wanted to be involved. The idea of sharing my own scars to show how breast cancer has impacted another young woman was very compelling. But to be honest, the most important part of the experience of being photographed was that it made me feel beautiful. It was an opportunity for me to stand tall and strong with my scars and redefine my beauty for myself. Each time I look at my photo I feel something different, but always I am proud of who I am.
When David took the photos, I guess vulnerable is not a word that came to mind. I felt strong, proud, honored to be involved. I wanted to make others see what it is all about to be stuck with this reality. You can just see it in the image, that there is nothing to pretend about.
I attended the opening of the show in New York. It provided a chance for me to enjoy the positive attention that has been hard to come by these last three and a half years. I thank David Jay and all the others who have turned the project into a reality. But I also must admit that I had a small breakdown with my husband half an hour before leaving for the airport to go to NYC. I knew I needed strength to go to the show, to show the face of surviving. But day-to-day is hard, dealing with life and the strain that cancer has added to my life. But I got to forget that side of it for a few days.
A very big thank you to David Jay for this project and for sharing his experience with POP. And to Emily who graciously offered to be a part of the interview.