Amazing Strength – an after cancer Experience
I had the honor to photograph 39 incredible women, unique in their personalities, occupations, size, hair color and cancer treatments. I needed to photograph them so they could see themselves as the world sees them – beautiful and strong.
Each one of these women have been told those words we’ve all grown to fear – “you have cancer”. They dealt with their diagnosis, a variety of treatment, then decided to join Team Phoenix – a 14 week training program to complete their first triathlon. Crazy…especially for some of these women who had never swam before the training. The swim part of the triathlon was 1/4 mile in open water (in a lake, with seaweed, and fish, and many other swimmers). A 15 mile bike ride and 3.5 mile run/walk follow the swim.
I was a Team Phoenix 2017 Athlete. (You’re called ‘athlete’ on day 1 of training…sure beats being labelled ‘cancer survivor’). I watched so many women work really hard during practices – as I tried really hard to keep up with some of the others. Once in the water and my nerves calmed down a bit on race day, I finished the swim, biked, ran and crossed the finish line. I was able to watch as some of my fellow teammates finished, some in tears, others jumping for joy. They did it! They set out a crazy goal for themselves and completed it.
I saw such beauty in their smiles, in their joy, laughter & tears…their new-found confidence and strength. Their Amazing Strength. I knew I had to create their portrait. A portrait of their strength. So they will exist in a photograph for all time.
That’s how my ‘Amazing Strength – an after cancer experience’ personal project began. I asked for 25 volunteers from Team Phoenix – looking for all shapes and sizes. I was slightly blown away when I received almost 50 responses. I scheduled the first 25 women for a consultation and session. The consultation is part of my usual photography workflow. I want to know their story – I want to know who they are, I’m always thinking how I can make their image, their portrait unique, authentic, honest and different than anyone else’s image.
As I spoke with the first few women I realized that this group, Team Phoenix, has had an incredible impact on all of us. We were able to be our regular self – not someone who has cancer. We were able to get to know each other as we swam, biked and ran/walked in practice. For many of us, we had no idea what type of cancer our fellow athletes had. It didn’t matter. Cancer united us and allowed us to sign up for this life-changing experience. Cancer didn’t otherwise define us.
When we crossed the finish line of the triathlon, we became Team Phoenix Alumni. Although the entry fee is steep (cancer diagnosis required), it’s an association I’m honored to be part of. I realized this group of women will step up, step in and stand by your side when you need support, a good laugh, a shoulder to lean on or someone to ride their bike with you.
One of our Team Phoenix 2017 sisters passed away from cancer before I could take her photograph for this project. As my heart broke, my sense of urgency to photograph as many women as I could moved me into action. Sometimes the energy of the universe puts people in your path at the right time. My TP (Team Phoenix) sister, Jill, stepped in to organize the remaining consultations and photo sessions. In a true testament to the TP attitude, each of the athletes showed up for their session…in the Wisconsin winter months (wind, rain, below freezing temperatures, wind, snow, cold, wind)…with unbreakable spirit.
I am honored with their trust in me to photograph them. For some, swim/bike/run was probably easier than sitting in front of a camera for a photo session.
So, you may be wondering about the cancer part…
Sometimes even a photograph doesn’t tell the entire story. This group of powerful women have overcome so many obstacles. They’ve heard the dreaded words “you have cancer”. They have dealt with surgeries leaving scars in place, always a reminder. They’ve faced treatment in many forms often living with lasting side effects. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, co-workers, your boss and your best friend. They have also crossed the finish line of a triathlon. They define Amazing Strength.
39 Amazing Strength portraits include:
Athletes with many stages and types of breast cancer
Several triple negative breast cancer athletes (one celebrated 5 years! & another 10 years!)
5 year brain cancer athlete
Thyroid cancer athlete
Skin cancer athlete
One athlete who crossed the finish line while actively on chemo for a reoccurrence of ovarian cancer
Cervical, uterine, breast cancers…one athlete
An incredible assortment of chemotherapy, surgeries, reconstruction stories & radiation treatments
Team Phoenix reaffirmed who I was as a woman.
Cancer is life-changing in a bad way…Team Phoenix is life-changing in a good way.
I learned I will never give up on myself.
I sometimes hate talking about cancer.
I’ve taken ownership of my health & body to keep myself alive.
Cancer didn’t have control of me anymore.
Crossing the finish line I was ’emotionally restored’.
I am Strong Proud Alive & Redefined.
It’s a sisterhood – they get me & I get them.
There are silver linings in everything.
Every day is a gift.
Before TP I was too focused on dying to really LIVE.
Team Phoenix allowed me to love myself.
I’m optimistic about everything.
I found my inner athlete.
I look at the bright side.
I’m getting my competitive nature back.
Team Phoenix sounded way too badass to NOT do it.
Team Phoenix was good for my whole family.
Best place I’ve been in years & years.
I love this new ME – a big awakening.
Gave me pride to do the program & to finish it.
We pushed each other to be our best.
I wanted to show my kids that things happen in life–
pick yourself up and do positive things.
Team Phoenix made me a better leader at work.
Team Phoenix is a cancer-free zone.
I’m a resilient fighter.
I find joy on my bike.
Team Phoenix allowed me to love myself.
I felt I could start my life on a new page.
We built a connection, a trust.
I felt alive again.
I found a strength I didn’t know I had.
I’m proud of myself.
I have a new sense of what I can accomplish.
Until Team Phoenix, I was a woman with cancer waiting for bad news.
I’m optimistic about everything.
The day of the Tri, I knew it was a day of celebration.
I surpassed the barriers.
The 39 women in the black & white images are redefined by crossing the finish line of a triathlon after cancer diagnosis & treatment. Each of the women pictured has a story of courage & Amazing Strength. In their strength, I see their beauty which will exist for all time in their photograph. I’m grateful to each one of them for sharing their time, their story and their enthusiasm to be part of this project.
We all had a cancer diagnosis, cancer treatment, then signed up for a triathlon with Team Phoenix. A life-changing event that bonded women into sisters over 14 weeks of training. I was inspired by my teammates who had never swam prior to training, then swam 1/4 mile in a lake, biked 15 miles then ran/walked a 5k. Crossing the finish line was a moment like no other.
Team Phoenix was formed in 2011 by incredible people, innovative doctors who have seen the affects of cancer on women. A breast surgeon, a cancer physical therapist and a research oncologist. Together, they convinced a handful of women to be Team Phoenix. Since then, the team has grown each year. There are 60 athletes who will begin their training for TP2019 and take part in their triathlon in July. Strong Proud Alive & Redefined #SPAR.
This is a recap of the beautiful energy during the reveal & gallery opening:
To view & purchase photos and the photo book:
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Warm air, sunshine, swimming pool…what could be better than a summer photo session?
The inspiration was an outdoor light box – a tent-like structure with billowy sheer white curtains filtering out the sunshine above a kids’ pool partially filled with water and two sisters posed beautifully in it….and photographs!
Flexibility & a sense of humor are key when the wind was blowing, the temperature an unusual cool day for July and…a very gray, hazy sky.
The sisters who came to model were wonderful in their attitude. Even as I boiled water and poured it into the pool, their teeth chattered yet they kept their spirits up!
Before images are beautiful young women.
After professional hair & make up artistry they are ready for the photo session.
What could be better than warm air, sunshine, a swimming pool for a summer photo session?
#WendysFlowerWall is my recent project where women are given an opportunity to select one word to follow “I am…” Women volunteer – some after a yoga class, some on a Saturday morning, most without advanced notice, therefore, no make-up application or hair adjustment.
I’m grateful to the women who feel confident in their skin to be in front of my camera, knowing their image would be used on social media and on the internet.
My Flower Wall project started when the winter darkness dragged on and I anticipated spring. I decided to create my own spring with colors out of my comfort zone….and #Wendy’sFlowerWall was born.
It’s my mission to help women see their beauty and their strength through Portraits. Sadly, so many women feel they aren’t good enough, skinny enough, pick-something-enough to have portraits of themselves done.
The thing is, a professional portrait of you today will out-last you. It’s a gift for your children, for your parents, for your girlfriends, for your sisters….for eternity.
My mission continues with my Flower Wall. To provide positive thoughts to women, to remind them…us…that we are strong, confident, remarkable, fearless, inspired, enough….
and beautiful beyond measure.
In the moments when I took these images, I had the opportunity to hear some of the stories behind the word selection. (I provided a variety of words). Some stories were incredible and heartfelt.
Everyone has a unique and powerful story.
What is yours?
How would you like to tell it?
During her photo experience, she was a natural beauty in the street clothes she had selected just for her photo shoot. She changed into her softball uniform and swung her bat like a pro. Each pose and expression easily achieved with her electrifying smiles, her eyes sparkling, her personality bubbling.
Toward the end, we left her mom and grandmother at a picnic table in the shade as we went back into the woods. She gave me more expression, energy & if it were even possible, more enthusiasm. We laughed a lot.
When she thought our session was about to wrap up, I pulled out her flower crown. (During our consultation and wardrobe follow-up messages, I found out her favorite colors & then I hand-made a crown to compliment her personality). It’s sometimes a gamble–a flower crown and a tulle skirt by surprise.
This client had given me her trust and allowed me to place the crown on her head, and just went for it. She transformed from the girl in street clothes, to the athlete ready to play ball to a princess in the woods.
During her photo reveal where she saw her slide show and images for the first time, I know she felt special. She felt seen. She got a chance to see herself the way the world sees her. Full of life. Beautiful.
I’m so fortunate to know such strong & beautiful women.
To have the opportunity to photograph one in this field
of flowers is a dream come true.
Willsboro, New York
I walked down the aisle past the piano keyboards, past cymbals on display looking like shiny branches on short trees, heading toward the loudest drum section in the back. Music equipment was everywhere on display – calling for
a test drive. The chairs were set up facing the stage. A jazz clinic was about to take place, the special guest performing at a local venue.
I arrived with little background information, yet was immediately defensive at what I observed. A man appeared to have cornered the guest asking for a LOT
of autographs and kept referring to his phone. Immediately I suspected these autographs were headed for ebay and this man was actively listing each item.
I applaud myself for how wrong I was.
The actual story is so much better.
The local music store had invited our high school jazz ensemble to participate in a clinic with Randy Brecker. Before you immediately judge me on my “I’ve read the album covers and know all the musicians involved for the past 50 years knowledge”, I’ll share with you that I cut my teeth in the 80’s dancing all night to every song I could sing & dance to. Certainly the birthplace of karaoke.
The jazz band took the stage and performed their first piece. Randy Brecker
rose from his seat, ascended the few stairs, greeting the musicians on stage. Humbling even the band director, the clinic began with Randy taking the microphone – ‘I can’t critique this…can I play with you guys?’ I think only a handful of the students could grasp that they were about to play with a
A little background: Randy Brecker is a trumpeter, composer & one of the founding members of Blood Sweat & Tears (1968 album), a Grammy Award winner, has toured behind the Iron Curtain in 1989. A studio musician, sometimes never actually playing with the artists but with ‘credits’ on albums by: Steely Dan, Ringo Starr, Aero Smith, BB King, Chaka Kahn, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross (see?, I sort of ‘knew’ Randy Brecker…), Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Benson, Paul Simon, The Average White Band, Lou Reed, The Brecker Brothers…to name a few.
According to allmusic.com Randy Brecker has 2,208 credits on albums.
Next, a 17 year old trumpeter from the jazz band came forward to solo – he exchanged some effortless musician-to-musician strategy with Randy. The music they played-back & forth jazz trumpets with support from the band was just incredible. This young trumpet player got a ‘thumbs up’ from Randy Brecker.
That moment will probably always live with that young man as it began to sink in that he just jammed with a legend. Unsure if he even heard what Randy said into the microphone to the crowd…”keep your eyes on this kid” kind of thing.
A memorable experience for this group of musicians to share the stage with living history.
The guy with the autographs?
Sometimes I just can’t walk away. I started a conversation with the man with the autographs & a few hundred record albums. Prior to the clinic, Randy sat, patiently signing album cover after album cover with this man. The best part – they were not going on ebay. This album collection is his hobby. He has several thousand albums in his basement with over 20,000 signatures – his wife draws the line that they must remain there. I asked how willing the musicians are to sign autographs. He told me one person met him for coffee the morning following a concert and signed a few hundred while they talked.
After all the albums were autographed, Randy Brecker took a small breath, handed the marker back, reflected saying, “Wow, that was my whole life
in 15 minutes”.
I doubt he’ll get credit on an album for his appearance on a small stage in a music store on a winter afternoon, but the almost 70 year old Randy Brecker made a difference that day.
Four days of spring!
Each year I look forward to the arrival of spring at the Milwaukee Art Museum where flowers are the art. ‘Art In Bloom’ is the museum’s four day event that fills each room with the scent & colors of spring.
Art in Bloom pairs one piece of incredible art to a talented floral designer or group. It’s quite an honor among florists, garden centers and garden clubs to be selected as a designer for this event.
The challenge of the day: deciding which arrangement receives my “people’s choice” vote.
I found it difficult to walk away from this arrangement! It was fascinating from all sides.
Elegant in simplicity.
Three panels of abstract flowers – an interpretation of
Yellow Guitar and Blue Vase.
Floral humor: grilled cheese & tomato soup
Simple, stunning, creative.
Vision, skill, artistic creativity.
Art in Bloom – always worth the trip.
Milwaukee Art Museum, www .mam .org