It began when David Jay learned that a 29-year old friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A fashion photographer, Jay’s instinctive response was to take her picture. The result was what he called a “beautifully disturbing portrait.”
That photograph, which unflinchingly displayed both the woman’s beauty and her mastectomy scar, was the genesis of the SCAR Project. Jay went on to photograph dozens of women who underwent mastectomies while between the ages 18 and 35. All of his subjects courageously displayed what is usually hidden from the world: the devastating physical changes wrought by their disease.
The SCAR Project images have been gathered into a book (The SCAR Project), a DVD (The SCAR Project documentary), and a traveling exhibition, which is currently at the Openhouse Gallery in Soho.
The gallery has two levels. There is a folding chair near the front door. A few votive candles are burning, a lucite box holds printed guides to the exhibit, and a table, draped in white, displays a visitors’ book, the DVD and the Scar Project book. A glass container for donations is perched on a nearby ledge.
Otherwise, the space is empty. There is nothing to distract from the portraits, which are blown up to much larger than life-size and hang against stark white brick walls. Each photo has a label with the first name and initial of the woman pictured and the age at which her cancer was diagnosed.
The women in the photos gaze directly into the lens of the camera and reveal their disfiguring scars, discolored flesh, misshapen breasts, puckered skin. The images are shocking, moving, powerful and beautiful.
The printed guide contains statements from each of the women on display. It also reminds us that these should not be considered a collection of pictures of cancer survivors — some of the women involved in the SCAR Project have died.
One lost her battle with cancer before Jay was able to shoot her photo; the place where her portrait would have been displayed is marked by a large black rectangle. Another died only days before the exhibit opened; a vase of flowers was placed below her portrait.
Below are excerpts from the participants’ statements:
I am glad I didn’t listen to people who thought I was too young to get breast cancer. I listened to my body instead.
I thought about my body, and all that it has been through. It almost felt like my body did not belong to me, but to the medical community.
A scar that marks me, separates me. Makes me wonder if anyone could love me and not be scared of my death.
My breasts did not define me as a woman, and without them, I am still curvaceous, sexy, and confident.
I never thought I would do a project like this, but I never thought I would have a mastectomy.
It is about demystifying the physical scars left, and even celebrating them as war wounds from a heroic battle.
Cancer took many things from me, but the one thing I may never get over losing is my sense of security.
With my participation in the SCAR Project, I hope that other women will find comfort in these images knowing what to expect …. having our breasts removed doesn’t make us any less feminine and we are all still beautiful.
I stare into the eyes of my corpse. But I still feel, so I know I still live. And for life, for my life, I will continue to fight.
I … see it as something to leave this world after I’m gone. Something for my family to look at and never forget the fight that I fought for my life.
The SCAR Project has replaced a huge piece that was missing within me and I feel in control of my life again.
I’d love to see a beautiful photograph of something I find so ugly. Maybe if my scars were viewed as art it would help me to heal.
As part of the SCAR Project, I can “just be me”. No covering up or masking the truth. No pretending that everything is fine. Here I am. This is me now. This is my life.
I am a force of femininity to be reckoned with even without the organs that have come to define womanhood in our culture.
The poster for the exhibit
The gallery door
View from the street
Reading the guide on the upper level
The lower level
Looking at the black “portrait”
The table and guest book
Diagnosed at 17, she died shortly before the opening
The SCAR Project
The SCAR Project Exhibition
Utne Reader: The SCAR Project