We live in a world of overwhelming statistics. We experience the most poignant human conditions in the form of numbers and abstractions, and in this most connected era in human history, our experience of reality and truth gets washed over by the onslaught of rhetoric and opinions that isolate us from critical issues that affect us. Disease is a subject that our society has become particularly good at communicating solely in statistical terms. Numbers put us all at ease, isolate the acute human pain associated with the disease and inevitably numb us to the reality that we or someone dear to us may be suddenly afflicted by something so life-threatening. I believe that the frequency at which certain diseases are growing in our society warrants the question of whether it’s good enough that we know that they exist or whether we should become better acquainted with them. By knowing more, we’re truly able to understand the extent of suffering caused to our fellow human beings and extend to them a hand of help, either as money that helps a charity or simply as an act of acknowledgement to fighters and survivors of the disease; we’re there to witness their pain and acknowledge their personal triumphs.
In The SCAR Project, a photographic exhibition of breast cancer survivors under 40, David Jay, a fashion photographer based in Australia, communicates the gravity of the disease and forces us to come face to face with the human dimension of personal struggles and victories associated with it. Jay, who has been shooting fashion and beauty professionally for over 15 years, was personally touched by the disease when his close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 32 and dedicated the past three years to creating portraits of countless women who have struggled with the disease. The age group he chose to photograph, women between the ages of 18 and 35, are the least often associated with breast cancer despite the fact that it’s the leading cause of deaths in young women ages 15 to 40.
“Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon” is written in bold words outside the Openhouse Gallery on Mulberry Street where The SCAR Project was exhibited. Breast cancer charities have recently received criticism for glamorizing and commercializing breast cancer by limiting its awareness through buzz-worthy actions like mass rallies and pink ribbons. The SCAR Project is in some ways the opposite of what a pink ribbon symbolizes. Instead of isolating the wearer from the human face of the disease, the project brings people uncomfortably close to it. We had the honor of assisting David Jay in transforming his beautiful portraits of breast cancer survivors into enlarged digital C-prints, mounted behind non-glare Plexiglas® at more than four feet tall, at the gallery in October.
Speaking about the project, Jay says, “For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride.”
Jay’s portraits are raw in a manner that’s disturbing, but they depict the truth without any bells and whistles that make it seem easy for us to digest. But what he gives us is the truth that we need, that we should see. His stark, bold portraits jolt us; they make us realize the enormous strength that a person as young as 19 must have to go through the surgery and to live from thereon with courage and solidarity with countless other survivors who are as young and ready to start the journey of their lives as another. These portraits communicate what photographers such as Man Ray and Weegee intended in their work—all false lenses removed between the subject and the audience so the photographer becomes simply a vehicle for communicating the bare truth and nothing but.
David Jay created this exhibition as a form of philanthropy by offering all his works to any breast cancer charity that wants to raise money and create awareness of the issue. He dedicates the works to more than 10,000 women under the age of 40 who will be diagnosed with the disease this year alone.
In the process of creating portraits of these strong women, Jay empowers us, the audience, with owning something we’re trained to be far too uncomfortable to own, and an even more powerful gift to the survivors—their portraits are an affirmation of their personal victories over this terrifying disease. These portraits release us into a place of acceptance and peace and strength to fight with and for its victims and survivors so that in that process we’re able to help in a meaningful manner. Photographed as gently and beautifully as the most powerful fashion portraits, Jay’s is the kind of honesty that makes photography truly relevant.
Jay’s determination and three-year perseverance that allowed him to locate and film hundreds of breast cancer survivors are extraordinary. “I struggled shooting The SCAR Project,” he says. “I was torn. Neither art project nor beauty pageant, The SCAR Project is a powerful, beautifully disturbing look into the souls of women confronting a devastating disease. I wanted the pictures to be raw, honest and sincere. Yet I knew why the subjects had come to me; they wanted something beautiful. They had already suffered greatly. And though 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, anesthetized by pink ribbons and fluffy teddy bears.”