From day one, the primary goal of this project has been to begin a new kind of conversation about cancer and survival. The discussions that have grown from Of Scars have led us to challenge our culture’s views on illness, recovery and beauty.
For the last two months, photographer Elizabeth Barnwell has generously donated her time and talent to Of Scars. Recently, I asked Elizabeth to send me a few thoughts on why she’d gotten involved in the project, and what she’d learned as a result. Below, you’ll find her very eloquent response.
My children have been bringing home scads of papers and forms from the first weeks of back to school, but one annual packet flat out disturbed me this year.
It’s the school picture order form.
Same fugly background colors and stiff poses as in years past, but in step 3 of the ordering process, this year I notice the form suggests that you “add retouching”.
The “Premium” package “whitens teeth, evens skin tone and removes blemishes, scars and fly-away hair”, but “does not remove braces, moles or glass glare” and costs a mere $12.
So I guess my 7-year-old might need retouching. What if he cuts his own hair on school picture day? I guess that could be fixed and nobody would ever know. Maybe we’d eventually forget that it ever happened.
Somehow this option, this “gift” of technology, makes me want to cry and scream and mourn for future generations that see only photo perfect versions of their parents and grandparents. Somehow, suddenly, photography isn’t about recording a moment or revealing a truth, but rather hiding our true nature and experiences…and why? Isn’t the implied message that we’re not good enough the way we are? Should we really aspire to the level of perfection worthy of a magazine?
What about simply being perfect to the ones who love us, owning our life lessons and experiences, and leaving tangible evidence of ourselves for future reference and inspiration? My favorite photographs from my family history are those that inspire a story and include a lesson and help me remember where I came from. These photographs are dear and awkward and some of them are uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t want my past perfected or erased. That would invalidate who I am today.
I am a photographer with all sorts of technology at my disposal. I tell stories with images. For me, the power of the images for the present and the future lies in the truthful nature of the process.
This notion is uber-important as it relates to my work photographing breast cancer survivors for Of Scars. I have been working with Kate and Elli for about 2 months, so my visual and conversational research is still new, but I am finding some common themes that feel like truth: cancer is scary, fighting and surviving a life threatening disease is beastly hard, and yet the women I have had the honor to meet have told me that fighting and surviving breast cancer has made their lives better and richer and more precious. These truths feel like hope anyone could benefit from. The images I am trying to make as an artist and a human must convey these profound truths and secrets to living well. Therefore, I am declaring this work certified organic, natural and free of retouching. The truth, beauty and love in the photographs is real and it is believable because it flies defiantly in the face of a commercial vision of beauty–we’re not trying to sell you anything.
It feels crucial to me that the awe-inspiring wisdom and human truth that survivors have earned and created and found in surprising ways be made available to the most important audience for this work; women and men diagnosed, fighting or surviving breast cancer and those close to them.
I’ve heard several times that being a breast cancer survivor is like belonging to a club that nobody wants to be a member of, but that once you’re a member you’ll find friends and inspirational people you might never have otherwise crossed paths with. For Julie, Lori and Bridget–the women I have photographed thus far–this work is for you, of you and inspired by you.
It is all you.
Your stories are already written on your bodies and in your eyes and they are powerful and divine.
This work is going to be your life-after-cancer yearbook, and your education and accomplishments are going to create a positive ripple effect beyond what any of us can imagine right now.
Everybody else: hold onto your desks, school is in session.
Elizabeth Barnwell is a Minneapolis-based photographer with a great big heart and a sense of adventure. See more of her work at www.ElizabethBarnwell.com.