This project has so inspired me. Hopefully after reading this, you too will be inspired by those around us who are battling cancer or any debilitating disease and appreciate the strength and courage that it takes to overcome a serious illness!
As most of you know, I am very involved on a volunteer basis with a local charity, StringsforaCURE®, which provides support and financial assistance to cancer patients, primarily those with breast cancer. Frequently, my photography world intersects with my work as a volunteer since I do the graphic design of booklets, brochures, rack cards and other marketing materials and often take pictures at events. Working closely with Elisa Guida, the founder of StringsforaCURE, has been a wonderful experience as she is a very creative artist and jeweler and has devoted her life to helping breast cancer patients after surviving two bouts of breast cancer herself. As we began to design our new StringsforaCURE booklet we wanted it to focus on the patients to whom we have provided assistance. I suggested that we include photographs of the cancer patients that we have helped so that we can put faces to some of the hundreds of women (and some men). That was the beginning of the project, Faces of STRINGS!
The first step was to find a place to take these photographs, so I turned a spare bedroom into a small studio with back drops and lighting. Then the hard part started – actually taking photographs using flash photography. That was something I had never done and, in fact, tried desperately to stay away from! But, I did a lot of reading and first started experimenting by taking “selfies” using a remote shutter release. After a few hundred test shots, I felt like I was ready for my first “model.” Elisa volunteered and we spent quite a bit of time again experimenting with different lighting, different poses and outfit changes. If you know Elisa, you know how much she likes to dress up and does a great job modeling for the camera. I was able to get some reasonable images and so we set forth to invite 11 other cancer survivors to participate. All were required to sign a model release agreement since these photographs were going to be used in our marketing materials.
Appointments were set up and one at a time each of these women came over and we took a variety of photographs in different poses and with different outfits. My goal was to capture something unique about each of these women. And let me tell you – each was truly unique! One woman volunteers with various organizations that rescue the dogs and find them good homes, one loves to ride motorcycles, another is a music teacher who plays a pink ukelele, another is a teacher who has been on an African safari and still another is a yoga instructor. One of the women came to her appointment wearing a brightly decorated lymphedema sleeve. Lymphedema is a common side effect that occurs following a mastectomy where without the proper compression garments that arm will swell up due to the lack of drainage by the lymph nodes removed during surgery. But she wears it proudly and considers it a teaching moment when someone asks about it.
Another woman arrived for her appointment out of breath and almost in tears. She was still undergoing chemotherapy and became extremely tired after dropping her son off at football practice, although she insisted on taking him to practice because she did not like to miss out on any of his activities. Over a cup of tea, she proceeded to show me a large bandage on her chest that she had to keep on because it covered a wound that was not healing. She was concerned because she wanted to wear a sleeveless summer dress but the bandage would show. I told her not to worry – I would remove it using PhotoShop!
Some of the women were comfortable in front of the camera – natural models! Others seemed a bit uncomfortable at first, but hopefully I helped them become more comfortable as the session went on. (Perhaps they didn’t realize how nervous I was since these were really my first attempts at portrait sessions!) During each of these photo shoots, we talked a lot and I began to learn a little about each one of them. Although each was unique, the one overriding quality that each possessed was a courageous determination to beat this disease! None of them wanted to be defined by her diagnosis. I was so impressed and very touched by the dignity with which they dealt with their disease and the strength that each of them showed. The project now took on an even deeper meaning for me!
Each woman was asked to write a short story about how they dealt with their diagnosis, treatment and recovery and the kinds of things that helped them through it all. They were also asked to submit a tip for dealing with cancer that they would like to pass on to others. As I read their stories and tips, it further emphasized how each one of them grabbed their cancer by the horns and through their strength, determination, courage and positive outlooks they are dealing with it and conquering it! I was truly humbled by these women – so beautiful inside and out!
We were pleased with the outcome of the photos shoots and decided that we wanted to share these faces and their stories and tips with the public to help raise awareness of how they overcame their dreaded cancer diagnosis as well as its treatment, which is sometimes as ravaging as the disease itself. Deb Vahanian from Glass Growers Gallery was also touched by the Faces of STRINGS project and has offered to display the images along with each of their stories at the Glass Growers Gallery on Gallery Night, December 5, 2014 to help raise funds for StringsforaCURE. I am donating all of my time and all of the materials for this display, which seems like a very small thing compared to what all these beautiful women have been through. There will be more details to come for the event.
Unfortunately, since finalizing plans for this project, one of the participants, Nikki Pachell, lost her hard fought battle with cancer on September 5, 2014. We have decided to dedicate the Faces of STRINGS project to Nikki and the courage, determination and positive attitude she showed throughout her journey.
The pictures below are just a sneak peak of the photographs that will be displayed at Glass Growers Gallery on Gallery Night! I hope you will come and support our cause!