2013 Sneak Peak #5: Let’s Talk About Real Awareness

A few times per year, we are asked this question:

“Why do you do what you do?”

The truth is, this project was never meant to be a long-term deal. It began as a simple, photographic exploration born of conversations I’d had with my mother, as she went through her diagnosis and surgery. Those first few photographs were incredibly personal. And they were incredibly universal. So we took more. We talked to people who’d walked this road. We listened a lot. And we learned something very important.

Breast Cancer Awareness is not a month. In our culture, we like our messages easy. We compartmentalize. We watch as newscasters lead with ten-second summaries of major world events, and end with thirty-second feel-good pieces involving comical viral YouTube videos. We don’t want to be aware, really. It’s scary, and it hurts.

Real awareness means understanding, and understanding is a decision. If you really want to know what’s going on with anyone–or anything–you have to stop, and absorb, and listen (please listen), and respond. It seems so common sense, but those behaviors are in direct opposition to our quick-decision marketing culture.

I’ve said it before in interviews and on our podcast, but breast cancer amplifies the experience of being a person–and particularly of being a woman–in our culture. We are expected to be healthy, and perfectly sound of body and mind. We are expected to hold it together. We are expected to believe that our bodies define our femininity (or masculinity). We are medicalized and sexualized and idealized and minimized. We are not told that it’s okay to fall apart, sometimes. We are not told that we’re greater than the sum of our parts. We are not given the message that our bodies are only the tiniest part of our human experience, and the most fallible. We are not reminded that this is our greatest strength.

Real awareness is huge. Breast cancer awareness isn’t about pink stuff. We know people get cancer. But until it touches our lives personally, we don’t see the human part of that story. We need to ask ourselves what happens in the wake of that diagnosis: What happens to relationships? To mental health? To future plans? What does that all mean?

Real awareness is about people, and anytime we open ourselves to understanding the complexity and beauty of the people around us, we get to learn about ourselves.

This project teaches me so, so much. Somehow, we managed to stumble upon a project that asks people to take a minute to stop and think. And somehow, that’s healing to so many people.

See that woman in the photograph? She shared one of the scariest and most vulnerable times in her life with us. How gutsy is that? And then, nearly a year later, she came back for the “after” pic. You can see it tonight. She’s got a scar, it’s true, but she’s also got life in her eyes that will sparkle right into your heart. It’s beautiful.

And I hope that when you see it, you’ll find an awareness of your beautiful, strong self, with all of your sparkles and scars. That’s why we do what we do.

2013 Sneak Preview #4

When Jill found us, she was a woman in the midst of transformation. A lifelong performer who felt as comfortable onstage as anywhere, cancer asked Jill to put her expressive side on hold for a bit, while she focused on her internal priorities. Jill carefully selected props and a location that reflected every side of herself. We got to see Jill as a bold presence, willing to share her journey with the world, and as a creative and contemplative woman who is finding out for herself what the next chapter of life holds. It was a graceful and personal session. I hope you’ll feel it, too, when you see the images on Saturday.


For the last three years, our Annual Celebration of Scars has been held at the Fox Egg Gallery in South Minneapolis. It’s a close-knit corner, and many of the business owners and neighborhood residents have grown quite close. Last year, the artists across the street at the 4 Points Body Gallery offered to help us out by tattooing the Of Scars logo onto anyone who wanted it the night of the show. Bunches of our attendees took them up on it.

This year, the offer got bigger. Several of the artists have developed flash specific to the event, drawings that symbolize to them the journey through and beyond cancer, in addition to our logo. They’re available for a small donation to the project. Above, you can see a couple of them, but we’ll have the drawings at Fox Egg Gallery on Saturday. If you’re into ink (or want to be), consider getting one of these small, original pieces. Document your celebration of scars, of survival, and benefit our project at the same time.

2013: Sneak Preview #3

When we met Lisbeth, she shared the story of a winter of trials in a year when life got turned upside-down, for a bit. But she also shared a story of comfort: Of sitting in a picture window and watching the snow flakes dance around her in her own personal snow globe, sweater-cozy, somehow assured that things would eventually be alright. She shared the story of a loving partner, an exciting future, and a (mostly) graceful journey to healing.

2013: Sneak Preview #2

The text conversation went like this.

Jessica: Do you think the theater would allow fire eating?
One of the other people organizing our shoot: [stuff about liability] but I’ll ask. It’s worth inquiring.
Jessica: Just for clarification, it’s just fire eating, not spitting fire plumes. I can’t do that.

It turns out, we weren’t allowed to bring fire into the gorgeous theater, although we definitely have plans to take a rain-check on the concept. (Come see those images next year!) It’s clear, though, that Jessica is a spitfire with loads of tenacity and a great sense of humor–elements that add up to a pretty freakin’ fun photo session.

Sneak Preview Time Again

Our big event is this Saturday. Remember? You’re coming, right?

The longer we work on this project, the more we figure out how to do it better. A couple of years ago, we realized that we needed to have meetings with our models well before we even schedule a photo session. It’s our way to make 100% sure that everyone involved wins, and no one loses. In those meetings, we talk about each person’s story–her diagnosis, her victories, her fears, her experience. We get an idea of what is motivating our model–the reasons for working with the project are as individual as the people who bring them. We brainstorm a conceptual plan.

And then we ask questions: “What is your goal for the photo session? What do you want to feel like when you’ve taken these photos?”

When we met Heather, she shared the story of a rather difficult diagnosis. The truth about survivors, you see, is that sometimes survival doesn’t mean freedom from this disease. Sometimes, you survive with the cancer, for the rest of your life. We talked for a long time about what that meant, and when we asked Heather how she wanted to feel after her photos, she said, “Honest.”


The day of the shoot, we showed up with paintbrushes and a roll of seamless paper, and Heather doodled the things that she carries with her as she navigates the Big Questions about life with cancer. It wasn’t always an easy list to read, but it was real and it was honest. And I guarantee that somewhere out there, someone will see it and feel a little bit less alone.

That’s why I love this project so very, very deeply. The courage of these women gets shared, and multiplied, and somehow turns into a community of support that amazes and humbles me. Surviving past–or with–cancer is heavy stuff. It’s honest, messy business and there’s not a road map or a flow chart that tells you what to do. But somehow, people come forward to remind us all that in the middle of the trickiest stuff, no one is alone. I’m so grateful to be a part of that message.

Stop by on Saturday. You’ll see what we mean.

Sneak Peek #6

Our final sneak peek is Monica. When she came in to talk with us about doing a photo shoot, she wanted us to push her boundaries and get her out of her comfort zone. Obviously, we suggested doing a Bettie Page shoot. Before we were able to get her shoot planned, she was diagnosed – a new, different cancer was found in her breasts, which meant she was facing her third lifetime diagnosis of cancer.

She called us and the first thing she said was, “I won’t have enough hair to do a Bettie Page photo shoot.”  To which we replied, “Bullshit. We will buy you a wig.”

Sneak Peek #5

We might do two sneak peeks today, because TODAY IS THE BIG DAY! We are so excited for this year’s event to unfold. One of my favorite things is seeing the women who did photo shoots from each year all meet each other and share their experiences.

This sneak peek is of Tiffany. We did her shoot outdoors on the farm her sweet little family bought to eventually move to. What surprised us all at her shoot was that she realized it was the first time since she had been diagnosed that she was taking a day to focus on herself, and her own healing. Her son was still breastfeeding when she was diagnosed, and the focus had always remained on him, and his health. It was an honor for us to be able to be there to support her as she turned her attention inward, and started the journey of reclaiming her body after surviving cancer.

Things You Want to Hear

Last year, at our exhibition, our friends from Minneapolis-based band Sleep Study composed an original soundtrack for the event. Songwriter Ryan Paul employed tremendous sensitivity as he mixed audio clips of poetry written by one of our models (and read by her family) over a score that completed the experience of the event in a moving and stunningly beautiful way.

It was an “A-ha” moment for us. We’ve always said that our project is about more than the photos, but adding the voices of those impacted by the cancer journey added depth to the project. Amidst the conversations and levity happening in the room, participants could take a moment and listen to insights into that incredibly complex journey through cancer, with all of its joy, fear, pride, sadness, and hope.

This year, Jon Herchert of Dark Pony scored the event for us. Instead of poetry, we used audio clips that our “podmin” Josh pulled from our podcast. Some of it is just us talking about the project and what it’s meant to us. Some of it is playful banter between the participants in our monthly discussion groups. And much of it is vulnerable and real discussion that our models have bravely allowed us to make public. All of it is part of the story of this year’s incredible group of survivors. These women have moved us, and taught us, and inspired us.

The musicians who’ve so kindly helped us are in their own rites positive, compassionate, and delightful people. I perused both Sleep Study’s and Dark Pony’s albums today, and discovered delightedly that both albums have themes that are very much in alignment with our project. From Jon Herchert’s unabashedly uplifting lyrics (“Try to be true/Try to be you./That’s the truth”) to the unfailing hope in Ryan Paul’s “Nothing Can Destroy”, it seems that amazing people and messages keep finding their way into our lives, and into this project.

Join us on Saturday to hear our newest soundtrack, as well as a set by the wonderfully talented Actual Wolf. It’s gonna be good, we promise.

Here, for your listening pleasure.



Sneak Peek #4

Meet Brigitte and Sid . . . Not gonna lie, Sid got almost as many photos as Brigitte! She brought him along because he has been such an amazing support for her since her diagnosis. We always encourage the women who participate in a photo shoot to bring a friend who played a big part in their recovery. For Brigitte, her person was Sid – and the bond between them is profound.