Q&A: Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty

Fashion photographer David Jay first turned his lens to breast cancer almost six years ago, shooting photos of mostly young women who’d been through disfiguring surgeries. Now his exhibition, the much-lauded Scar Project, is traveling around the country. His photos are part of a recent book on the Scar Project, which is also the subject of a new documentary called “Baring it All.”

I-Nerd, who knows a little something about scars, recently interviewed David Jay:

Q: How do you manage to shoot beautiful photos that challenge conventional notions of beauty?

A: I really struggled shooting the Scar Project. As you know I’m a professional fashion photographer. I wanted the photos to be really, really raw and to be honest. But what I’m shooting isn’t really a beautiful thing to look at. I wanted to reveal this honestly. Unfortunately or fortunately, when the women I was shooting would come to my door, I couldn’t bear to take that very raw, not classically pretty picture. I knew why they had come on a certain level. They wanted something beautiful. They knew that I could do it, except that’s not what I wanted to do. It’s not about taking pretty pictures, it’s about taking honest pictures.

I would spend a couple hours with each of the subjects, turn the lights this way and that way. Meanwhile, some of the women had put on weight from their hormonal treatments. Their skin looks like sandpaper from radiation, and they have a brutal scar. They’re not looking their best. Once they were standing in front of me, I wanted to take a picture that was beautiful, at least for them. But I didn’t think the pictures were honest.

It took me a couple of years to say, “No more shooting in the studio.” I thought I was doing a disservice to the integrity of the Scar Project by taking pretty pictures. Since then, the images have slowly evolved to a more and more documentary style, what you see with Jolene and other girls. You have a mix: some beautiful studio photos and more raw, documentary-style images. That being said, the raw ones are just as beautiful as the studio ones. Ultimately the beauty of the woman is going to come through, the soul of a woman.

Q: Any retouching?

A: There is no retouching.

Q: So your exhibit contains both stylized and raw shots?

A: Yes, and it contains the first picture I shot and the last one so far.

Q: Where is the exhibit?

A: It’s traveling all around the U.S. and Europe. The next stop is in Washington, D.C., then Toronto and L.A. The exhibit changes in each city, with a few pictures removed and some added.

Q: So you’re still taking photos?

A: I try to follow the women as the disease progresses. Until the very end if that is what’s to be.

The last one in New York at the end of October was a very upsetting exhibition. One girl I’d been shooting four years passed away on opening day. I had just shot her at her home in California. I added a few of those.  I shot her a couple weeks prior to her death. One of her last wishes was to come to New York and see the exhibition. We arranged to bring her and her mother to New York and unfortunately she was so sick at the end, she couldn’t get on the plane and passed away two days later.

[Brief pause by interviewer to maintain composure]

Q: On another topic, what kind of feedback have you gotten?

A: It’s been amazing. It has been so well received. It seems to have touched a nerve that hadn’t been shown the light of day. Like I said, I didn’t know if anyone would look at these pictures. I never expected that the pictures would be life changing for so many people. I get so many beautiful emails and messages on Face book. So many say the same thing: “I’m a 40- or 50-year-old woman with breast cancer, and since I’ve had my mastectomy: a)  I’ve never been able to look at myself in the mirror, and b) I don’t get dressed in front of my husband post-mastectomy.” The messages follow similar lines. Then they write, “I got a link to the Scar Project,” and then they say, “It changed my life. It changed my perspective of myself as a woman and a human being.” That feedback is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.

Q: So breast cancer patients and survivors are getting validation from this?

A: Absolutely. Ultimately the Scar Project isn’t even about breast cancer. I’ve come to see more and more that it’s more about humanity in general and having a greater compassion and understanding, being more present in our lives, being more gracious with our love. I think a lot of people get that. It’s because everyone suffers. Some with cancer and some with a million other things, but when we stand in the room at the exhibition, you can’t leave unchanged. And you don’t leave changed about breast cancer, you leave just changed as a human being.

Q: Do you still do fashion photography?

A: I jump back and forth from a fashion shot to a Scar Project shot. I’m starting my next project now. It’s kind of Scar Project 2.0 — The Unknown Soldier. It’s a series of large portraits of very young men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, with arms, legs blown off.

I know these kinds of things have been shot before, exhibitions of wounded soldiers, but they are often clothed. I don’t think they show the stumps, the disfigurement. The uniform is on, rolled up to wherever they’ve lost their leg. I’m trying to show the real deal. That’s what they see when they get up the morning. They see the real deal.


Below is a Q&A written by photographer David Jay in response to commonly asked questions:

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.

Is 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.

When did you start this project? How much time did you take to finish it?

I began shooting The SCAR Project nearly 5 years ago. I have not stopped. Perhaps I never will.

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.”

You have been shooting fashion and beauty professionally for over 15 years. During the Scar Project, have you felt shocked in some moment? Was there some experience particularly unforgettable?

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.

Few photographers deal with this subject, searching a new point of view. How are your portraits different of the others that have already 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.

Do you think that charity doesn’t show the reality of the victims of breast cancer? What 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.

Your portraits show beautiful and young women. Is this a way to make de risk of cancer real in every woman’s life? Doesn’t it cause 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.

Do you think that your portraits cause uncomfortable feelings in people who have seen them? Was this reaction your aim? What is the role of provocative images? 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.

Some women have been shot before breast reconstruction. Is our society 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 NYC late last year.  No one walked by the gallery without coming in. Thousands of people.  It was like a beautiful, heart wrenching magnate.  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 here in the US and (this week) 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.

How many portraits take part in the exhibition? What are the sizes of the pictures?

Nearly 100 women have been shot so far. There are 35 large scale images (approximately 1.5 x 1.0mt) in the exhibition and 50 in the book, “The SCAR Project: Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon”.

Who are some of the most inspirational women you’ve met? What do you think they would tell other women dealing with cancer?

One woman who is very special to me is Jolene. Jolene was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 17. I 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. I went out to photograph her in California last weekend and it was a beautiful but emotionally difficult shoot. Jolene is on a journey which, unless something drastically changes, is going to end relatively soon. She is in a wheel-chair and basically on home care. This disease has completely transformed her body and her life.

But despite all of this, Jolene continues to be one of the inspiring women I have ever known. She is courageous, compassionate and loving. It’s a reminder to us all to be present, to be grateful for what we have . . .even if it appears to be little.  She reminds us . . . educates us  . . .  shows us . . .  how it is not only possible but 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?

The things that can seem so unbearable, the things that seem like the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to you will absolutely be the best thing that has ever happened to you . . . .if you allow it. 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.

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One Response to Q&A: Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty

  1. Joyce Warner-Burke says:

    Very interesting and inspiring.

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