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'Scar Project' Photographer Takes Honest Look at Breast Cancer Survivors

By Patrick Hedlund | October 31, 2011 3:55pm

MANHATTAN — While David Jay’s good friend was recovering from breast cancer following a mastectomy and chemotherapy five years ago, the fashion photographer felt compelled to train his lens on her.

But glamorous was far from the image the Vogue and Elle contributor wanted to portray — a decision Jay said came out of his desire to confront his own sadness about the situation.

“That’s maybe how I wanted to deal with my own grief,” said the New York-based photographer, who had been living in Australia at the time, and had his friend pose mostly nude to reveal her scars from surgery.

That led Jay to shoot two more breast cancer survivors, ultimately leading to his Pulitzer Prize-nominated photo series "The Scar Project," which are currently on display in NoLIta.

The images, part of an exhibition running through Sun., Nov. 6, at the Openhouse Gallery on Mulberry Street, capture jarring yet poignant shots of dozens of women who have undergone major surgeries that in some cases meant removing both breasts.

While the exhibition includes large-scale photos of Jay’s subjects, he said that "The Scar Project" isn’t intended as art.

“This is having your womanhood removed,” he said of the impact of breast cancer. “Ultimately the Scar Project is about self acceptance and about humanity, about compassion, empathy. It’s about opening a dialogue about things that scare us, but things that we need to think about. It’s about realizing that we’re so much more than our physicality.”

Jay explained that after initially shooting a handful of women, survivors began approaching him about participating in the project, oftentimes against the wishes of their significant others and families.

“It’s a way to come to terms with what’s happened to them, a huge moment of acceptance for them,” he said.

“They want to come. It’s never been my intention to take pretty pictures of women with breast cancer. It’s been my intention to take honest pictures of women with breast cancer.”

In the five years since starting the project, he’s taken photos of nearly 100 women, many only in their 20s or 30s. More recently, he’s limited his subjects just to women in their 20s, to help raise awareness about how breast cancer affects not only older women.

Jay’s younger subjects lend some of the photos a haunting quality, given how fresh-faced they appear despite major scarring.

“I think we’ve reached a happy compromise where the message is true,” he said. “They are honest pictures of woman, even if they’re not aesthetically pleasing to look at.”

Jay also has a book and documentary related to the project, and he hopes it will continue to increase awareness about the disease, which was diagnosed in more than 230,000 new women in 2011, according to the American Cancer Society.  

“It’s amazing to be able to work with these women through such an important aspect of their life,” he said. “It’s beautiful to take part in that some way.”

The Scar Project, now through Nov. 6 at the Openhouse Gallery, 201 Mulberry St. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.