Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon.
Sure, that pink ribbon is universally recognized as a symbol for breast cancer awareness, and millions of people display it proudly to show their support and encourage greater attention to the cause.
But to a woman fighting the disease, and to the people who love her, that small pink accessory doesn’t begin to represent the experience. And how could it? What image could ever capture the tragedy of cancer, but also the hope needed to fight it? The ugliness of the disease, but the beauty, grace, and triumph of the woman who is enduring it? The physical pain, the emotional agony, the reality of breast cancer—not merely the cute pink face we give it during the month of October?
Enter The SCAR Project.
The project is a series of photographs of young women, most of them only in their 20s, who have undergone surgery for breast cancer—and have the scars to prove it. Created as an exercise in awareness, hope, reflection, and healing, the result is a shockingly raw, yet strikingly beautiful, collection of images that show a side of the disease that we’re not used to seeing: the reality.
Although the photographs speak volumes for themselves, I was fortunate enough to talk to the man behind the camera, acclaimed fashion photographer David Jay. In an interview as inspiring and heartfelt as his images, Jay explains what we can all learn from the women—the fighters—featured in his project.
What is your goal with The SCAR Project?
The SCAR Project is primarily meant to be an awareness campaign for young women. It’s 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 will just go on with their lives—because that’s not the case. The reality is that some of these girls are dying, and it’s important to have their story out there.
But 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 and all the suffering—with grace, courage, empathy, and understanding.
What inspired you to start this project?
I started the project after my dear friend Paulina was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was only 29. When she told me the news, I couldn’t even imagine that someone so young could get breast cancer. Like many people, I thought of it as your mother’s disease or your grandmother’s disease, certainly not a disease for a healthy 20-something-year-old girl. But so many of the doctor’s don’t even realize it’s a threat at this age, either.
I asked Paulina if I could take her portrait because, as a photographer, that’s often how I work through things. After the shoot, she asked me if I would be interested in photographing some of her friends who she had been going through treatment with. They were also in their 20s and she thought they might benefit from the experience in the same way that she had. The project just grew from there.
How have the women who participated reacted? Do you think they’ve benefitted from the experience?
It seems to help them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, and their identity after having been robbed of such an important part of it—most of them no longer have part or any of their breasts. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride. But to be honest, when I began shooting, I didn’t realize how deeply it might affect them.
The project also affects women who I don’t get the opportunity to shoot. I get emails from women of all ages, all over the world, who have breast cancer. They frequently say things like, “I haven’t felt like a woman since my surgery,” “I haven’t gotten undressed in front of my husband yet,” “I don't let my children see me naked,” but that seeing these images has changed their perception of who they are—changed their life. They see the women in the images and think, “Well, if you look beautiful after this, then perhaps I am still beautiful, too.”
Who are some of the most inspirational women you've met?
One woman who is very special to me is Jolene, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 17. I first photographed her last year. Since then, the cancer has spread throughout her body. It spread to her jaw, which they had to remove and try to reconstruct. A tumor then grew near her skull, pressing on her brain and causing her to have strokes. This disease has completely transformed her body and her life, and, unless something drastically changes, Jolene’s journey is going to end relatively soon.
But despite all of this, Jolene continues to be one of the most inspiring women I have ever known. She is courageous, compassionate, and loving. She’s a reminder to us all to be present and to be grateful for what we have, even if it appears to be little. She reminds us, educates us, and shows us how it’s not only possible, but also so important, to both live and die with beauty, grace, and dignity.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from shooting The SCAR Project?
For one, the things that can seem unbearable, that seem like the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to you, can absolutely be the best thing that has ever happened to you—if you allow it to be.
But also, 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 you can die mired in it. This I know for sure, both from my own life and from photographing these women.