An interview with David Jay, photographer of THE SCAR PROJECT: Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon
We've heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. So David Jay's 50 portraits of young breast cancer survivors must be worth 50 thousand. Add to this the autobiographical sketch by each woman, describing her experience with breast cancer and The SCAR Project (volume 1) is a profound book that will change public perception and understanding of Breast Cancer forever.
The SCAR Project started as an exhibition of large-scale portraits of young breast cancer survivors shot by David Jay, who has been a fashion photographer for 15 years. Nearly 100 women have been photographed so far. There are 35 large scale images (approximately 1.5 x 1.0mt) in the exhibition and 50 in the book.
David says the project has changed his views on life immensely, "We as humans tend to procrastinate doing the things we need to do in life. We put things off, look the other way, surrender to our insecurity and fears. But Mother Nature will always have her way with us . . . .forcing our hand. . . . forcing us to live up to our own true potential. You can choose to live up to it . . . or die mired in it. This I know for sure, both from my own life and from photographing these women."
1. What inspired you to start this project?
I never intended to shoot The SCAR Project. It evolved very organically after my dear friend Paulina was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 29. Within two weeks she’d had a mastectomy. A beautiful, strong, young woman, I had taken Paulina’s picture a hundred times since she was 17. I saw her soon after her surgery and knew I would have to shoot her again. I took her picture because, perhaps as a photographer, taking pictures is my way of confronting, understanding and accepting the things I see.
2. How was shooting The SCAR Project different from shooting “fashion”?
As a fashion photographer I have spent my life trying to capture an idealized version of the contemporary zeitgeist of female beauty. The SCAR Project is not “idealized”. It doesn’t need to be. 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.
3. When did you start this project and how long did it take to finish it?
I began shooting The SCAR Project nearly 5 years ago. I have not stopped. Perhaps I never will.
4. What is your goal with the Scar Project?
It’s primarily meant to be an awareness-raising campaign for young women. The Scar Project is not about taking beautiful pictures of women with breast cancer but rather about taking honest pictures of women with breast cancer. I’m not going to just show half the story —that everything’s going to be fine and these girls have breast cancer but they’ll just go on with their lives—because that’s not the case. I wish that was the case but the reality is that some of these girls are dying and it’s important to have their story out there as well because that is the reality of the disease.
As difficult as it is to look at the portraits in the gallery, it’s important that they are there. Ultimately, The SCAR Project is not really about breast cancer. It’s about self-acceptance, compassion, love, humanity. It’s about accepting all that life offers us . . . all the beauty . . . all the suffering too . . . with grace, courage, empathy and understanding.
5. Were there unforgettable or shocking moments for you in photographing these courageous women ?
I am never shocked . . . but always moved. An unforgettable moment? Perhaps during the shoot of Sara, the red haired woman with tears running down her face. The shoot was going well. The pictures looked good, honest. There was laughter. 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 is 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 for her.
6. Few photographers deal with this subject, but how are your portraits different to others that have been done?
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 the disease… anesthetized by pink ribbons and fluffy, pink teddy bears.
7. If charity doesn't show the grit and reality of breastcancer, what do you think are the social consequences of this misrepresentation?
Hundreds 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 terrifying, disfiguring, and deadly.
8. Your portraits show beautiful and young women. Is this a way to make the risk of cancer real in every women’s life? Or could it provoke unnecessary fear?
The SCAR Project is primarily an awareness-raising endeavor. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women. One in eight women will get breast cancer in her lifetime. Fear is unnecessary but education and awareness is.
9. What responses were you hoping to provoke in the viewers of these confronting portraits?
It can be uncomfortable for the viewer. It forces us to confront our fears and inhibitions about life, death, sexuality, sickness, relationships, etc. I once read it described as “unflinching.” Reality is not always pretty. This is reality. Let’s address it. The SCAR Project presents an opportunity to open a dialogue about issues we are not necessarily comfortable with.
10. Some of the images show women before breast reconstruction. With the obsession society has on the perfect body, do you think our society is prepared to see beauty in images like yours?
When I first began shooting The SCAR Project I didn’t know if anyone would want to look at the pictures. I didn’t care and shot them anyway. Five years later and I think I have an answer.
The SCAR Project exhibition opened in New York City late last year. No one walked by the gallery without coming in. Thousands of people. It was like a beautiful, heart wrenching magnet. There are now nearly 20,000 people on The SCAR Project’s Facebook page. Millions have gone to its website. A documentary about it (“Baring It All”) recently premiered on national television both the US and in the UK.
The intelligence, compassion, humanity and maturity of the population is greatly underestimated my major media. I think society is not only prepared for images like this (and what they represent), I think they are starved for it.
Thank you, David. I applaud you for your determination to make a difference and to give dignity to these courageous and beautiful women.
I was inspired to post about The SCAR Project because I hope and pray for a cure and wanted to help raise awareness and funds for research. Also because this month marks the first anniversary of the death of my girlfriend, Caroline, who died of Breast Cancer a couple of weeks before her 38th birthday. Twenty years after we met at University. Almost four years after her diagnosis. She is survived by her husband and four lovely young daughters.
And for my beautiful friend who has lost many strong women in her family to the disease, including her mother.
If you would like to view some of the moving images from the book you can do so here. The book is available at Amazon.
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Image used with permission by David Jay http://www.thescarproject.org/
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