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:
Donate to Amazing Strength:
Celebrating 39 women and their Amazing Strength in photographs. Redefined by crossing the finish line of a triathlon after cancer diagnosis & treatment.
I’ve been doing a lot of celebrating recently…my son’s graduation from Army Logistics University, a visually-stimulating visit to Cuba, and a clean mammogram this week. In the middle of all that, I’m hanging photographs of incredible women in a gallery exhibit. Amazing Strength is my personal photography project showing each woman her courage, strength and beauty which will exist in a photograph for all time.
They are images of your girlfriend, your wife, your sister, your boss.
I watched my teammates train for 14 weeks. Some crossed the finish line laughing and elated, others sobbing in tears. Strong, Proud, Alive & Redefined. I saw their strength and in their strength, I saw their beauty. I needed to photograph these women! Many had never swam before, others hadn’t been on a bicycle in 30 years, yet they signed up to do a triathlon. Cancer didn’t stop these women – it made them more determined to live.
We were all Team Phoenix athletes and now, Team Phoenix Alumni.
The exhibit opens Saturday, March 9, 2019 6-9pm and closes March 17th, 4pm. Every day I’ll give a gallery talk at 2pm. Genetti Gardens & Studio, 611 Bleeker Street, Delafield, Wisconsin.
Amazing Strength, Phase 2 is in the creative process. Any and all donations are gratefully accepted at http://www.plumfund.com/fundraising/amazingstrength
You are a masterpiece of nature and deserve to be a work of art, hanging in the most important galleries for the world to see.
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?
“We take photographs as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone”
I’m a photographer.
I see differently. I feel differently.
I kick myself in the rear end almost daily for not using my gifts earlier in my life.
You see, I show people that they are beautiful. That they exist. And, in a photograph they will exist for all time.
So one day years from the day that I deliver the printed images, someone can spend an afternoon studying that image, trying to make their heart whole again, trying to recall a voice forever gone, to rediscover a missing touch, the image in a portrait will forever be staring back at them. A photograph. Tangible proof that they existed.
Her image is only a snapshot on my cell phone. A memory I want to treasure for all time. The rare moment of connection. She is my mom. The woman who picked me up from my first day of kindergarten in our red Volkswagen Beetle with a sunroof, a surprise waiting on the back seat–a kitten! She was the person who gathered our small family at the round kitchen table for meals. The one who took me to the doctor after my best friend, Mary Beth and I each came down with a fever at the movie theater while watching Mary Poppins. I watched my mom care for her step mother until her death. I watched my mother cry when she held my newborn infants. I watched my mother during my father’s grave side service. I watched her complete the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen.
My mother slips further away each day. A strong, beautiful woman is being replaced by the affects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
One summer day we sat outdoors in the warm sunshine. It was a good day. There were a few moments where she worked out a memory from several of my prompts. It was a flicker. A cell phone selfie moment. I wanted so desperately to remember my mother. I should have been taking photos all along. I should have made her portrait. I should have made her portrait every year to show her how beautiful she was to the world. It’s truly selfish to admit that I wish I had those memories of my mother to recall her beauty, her joy, her smile, her love.
I have only cell phone images of my mother.
My mother who deserved to exist in photographs. Forever.
When the decision was made to sell her home, my childhood home, and I had the very adult job to clean out her memories, the first thing I searched for was my parent’s wedding album. I hadn’t seen it in decades. As a daughter, as a mother myself and as a photographer, I had to locate the album. Eventually I found it, wrapped it carefully and secured it in my carry on luggage. I carried it to my home as if it were gold, a precious gift. It would be years before I had the time and strength, and allowed myself the luxury of turning it’s pages.
One day recently, I sat down with the large, white album on my lap. Heavy with black & white prints. Substantial. Important.
Slowly I opened the cover and removed the yellowed velum page. I wanted to savor it’s contents like the perfect cup of coffee yet also anxious to flip the pages quickly in anticipation of seeing my parents again. My parents in love. My parents beginning their lives together, years ago, waiting for me on the album pages.
As I slowly devoured the pages, I fell in love the with photographer. How did he see such perfection? The black and white images, captured so beautifully, a wedding of two important people. My mother and my father. And looking on with pride, my grandparents, all of whom I would never have the opportunity to know. They exist. They exist in photographs in this album. I study the posing in each photograph. The details. My mother’s hands gentle on her father’s arm, her smile and kindness that I often see in my own daughter. I remember the stories of each one of her bridesmaids and their importance in her life. I smile at the candid images. I am moved at the loving glance between my grandmother and my father on his wedding day. I am in awe of the talented photographer, shooting black & white film on an August afternoon in 1955 that he had the remarkable ability to press the shutter at exactly the precise moment.
I will admit tears were streaming across my cheeks, caught on my sleeve before dampening the pages of the album, open and heavy on my lap. Each page told me a story of my beginning. This work of art, created over fifty years ago was a gift. A gift to the future. There was no way to have known when this album was created and purchased, that I would be studying each image so intimately so many years later, completely affected. Influenced by it’s existence. Humbled by the weight of history it contains.
As a portrait photographer, my regret is the portrait I didn’t take.
I sat with my mother recently as she tried to piece together a melody. There were many missing parts in her endless humming and the song quickly changed. I’ve read her story, I know her songs and can help fill in some of the parts. There was a pocket-sized moment where she said, “I think I might know you, I love you”.
My beautiful mother is just a photo on my iPhone.
How did I not see that I had to make her exist in photographs?
I should at least print these photographs. They will then become real, tangible.
It is life lessons like mine that I try to bring into each session with my portrait clients. I’m so honored to photograph them. They will exist in photographs. Maybe not only as a gift now, but maybe someday, someone will cherish that printed image, gently trace their familiar profile, wanting deep in heart and soul, to remember them for all time.
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.
You deserve to become
a work of Art
because you are
A strong woman is one who feels deeply & loves fiercely.
Her tears flow just as abundantly as her laughter.
A strong woman is both soft & powerful.
She is both practical & spiritual.
A strong woman in her essence is a gift to the world.
I see strength & beauty.
I’m grateful for a woman’s trust on the other side of my camera and wonder how she interprets my gestures when I see THE shot. Often I wipe a tear from my eye when things line up and I have the photograph to show her how beautiful she is to the world.
I see a woman’s strength, not in skinny, perfect make-up or designer clothes. I see strength in her journey up to the moment I press my shutter. I see her beauty shine when the wind messes her hair, laughing with her girlfriend, on a mountain, in the woods.
She’s the woman I love to photograph, her stories, pain, resolve, laugh lines and
all the reasons she is who she is today.
That is real. She is a beautiful woman.
She will exist in my photographs for all time.
I will show you how beautiful you are.
©Wendy Andrews Photography
it’s unbecoming everything
that isn’t you
so you can
who you were meant to be
in the first place.
I found this quote on #jfindsyoga/sexyfoodtherapy.com on Instagram.
Thought it worked well for this photograph I took during a yoga retreat. The retreat was filled with incredible moments: women bonding, laughing, supporting. Nourishing food and wine, Forrest bathing, meditation, aromatherapy, singing bowls, bowing practice, hikes in the woods and on the beach, perfect weather, yoga and beautiful souls.
More photographs to follow.
A strong woman is one who feels deeply & loves fiercely. Her tears flow just as abundantly as her laughter. A strong woman is both soft & powerful. She is both practical & spiritual. A strong woman in her essence is a gift to the world. -unknown author
I’m always grateful for a woman’s trust when she’s on the other side of my camera. While I attempt to make her feel relaxed & beautiful, I wonder how she interprets my gestures, especially when I see THE shot. (I’ve been told) I sometimes make sounds – like an audible smile noise, sometimes just “yesyesyes”, quite often a tear forms in my eye when everything lines up & I hope the photograph looks something like my vision!
I see a woman’s strength. Its not in the form of skinny, in perfect makeup, in designer clothes. I see strength in what she’s been through on her journey up to when I press the shutter. I see her beauty shine when the wind messes her hair, when she laughs with her girlfriend, when her feet are bare, in the earth, on a mountain, splashing in the shallow water of a chilly lake.
She’s the woman I love to photograph. With her stories, with her pain, with her resolve & her laugh lines and all the reasons she is who she is today. That is real. That is a beautiful woman.
Hiking boots. 4:30am alarm. Fender-bender.
3 Generations. Mountains. Gratitude.
Years ago, my hiking partner & I would greet the day with an early alarm. Rising with the alarm would be crazy to assume, as neither one of us would have slept a wink, knowing we had the opportunity to hike together in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains of upper New York State. One of the first on the trail that day gave us the chance of collecting all the spider webs, making our footprints in the mud from the night before and getting a jump on the summer daylight. (the truth: most days it rained when we hiked…there was no beautiful sunrise).
Back then, we hiked with a mission to finish hiking all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks over 4,000 feet in elevation. Once we accomplished that goal (and it was a huge accomplishment) everyone wondered “what’s next?” will you continue to hike or just pack it in now that you’ve accomplished your goal? I knew instinctively that I’d return with my camera. It wouldn’t be a hike, it would be a photo op. The photo documentation from our hikes had consisted of: arrival at the peak – sometimes with a marker or a plastic disc with the mountain name – in the rain – the swift removal of my point & shoot from the zip lock baggie, one shot at a selfie with both of us in it, the return of the camera to the zip lock & trying to get below the tree line for shelter so we could take in a quick energy break.
During the miles of footprints on the trails I saw so many beautiful places that I wanted to photograph. Carrying a camera & spending the time to stop & start seemed counter to our success at that time. However, in my mind, my creative thoughts flowed constantly…almost as strong as the river we ascended Seward Mountain in. I pictured a beautiful vista – we passed several – with a strong woman in red, in complete possession of her beauty and power with the Adirondack mountains as a stunning & supportive backdrop. The mountains with all their beauty couldn’t shine as bright as a strong woman. The combination, in my mind, was powerfully crazy. It kept my thoughts occupied as the long winter months dragged on, just waiting for the opportunity, the stars to align, the moment when I could look thru my camera, press the shutter and capture the beauty, the strength, the elegance, the moment.
Until it happened.
A small window created itself. Then closed. The only day for a hike was postponed by a fender-bender. It couldn’t be helped. Fortunately no one was injured, just the mounting anticipation postponed. It had already been two years, what’s another day?
Funny thing when we listen to the energy of the universe.
The fender-bender was only to delay our hike, avoiding heat, humidity and…rain & thunderstorms. The weather the following day was…incredible. It began with a gift of a beautiful blue moon reflecting on the lake. We hiked a long road into the base of the mountain, uphill all the way.
I carried my pack with my usual hiking gear and an additional pack with my camera, a few dresses and flow-y fabric and a few assorted props. Gratefully, my hiking buddies/models helped to carry the additional pack. We quickly ascended to our destination. Up. And more Up. I had only seen photographs of our location, sight unseen but listening to the universe.
The day was just dawning with beautiful sun rays peeking through the trees along the trail. The birch trees glowing white. The river singing alongside our path. My only Adirondack hike of the year and I anticipated the smell of balsam. I wasn’t disappointed.
With excitement came our last turn off the uphill trail, I was leading and as the trees parted, I came out onto the granite ledge. W. O. W. All I could say was “wow”…with that raspy, not-really-a-sound but more of an exclamation, almost to myself…and to the universe. Gratitude flowed over my soul as I looked out onto the most beautiful sight I had only dreamed of. Mountains to the left and to the right, mountains I had climbed over 25 years, with the beautiful blue lake, nestled in between. Blue sky and white clouds as far as I could see. There really are no words when you come across such majesty. Nature is an incredible editor, making everything just so.
My girls, hiking buddies, taking in the view as well, were psyched! I had packed a couple dresses and fabric – game ON. Hiking boots and beautiful dresses! I could not contain my excitement for another minute. The three of us, bonded by legacy. Our fathers had known each other years ago at a local camp (the Greatest Camp in the Universe). We reunited recently, after one of the connectors passed away. We were together to sprinkle some ashes in his beloved mountains.
Our hike quickly erupted into a photo session…my vision came to life right before my eyes! It’s always a wonderful feeling when others will take your lead and trust you immensely – to allow me to coach their body into a moment and wait for me to photograph it. Completely vulnerable. Strong. Incredible. Feminine. Powerful. Without a doubt, beautiful.
We laughed. We worked hard. Almost as hard as the hike to get here. My vision had come to fruition. These women made it happen. I was filled with gratitude beyond words. Just images.
The final series was with both women. A bond with roots 50 years in the making. We are the middle. Our sons were also at the Greatest Camp in the Universe this summer, together. Continuing the legacy of their grandfathers.
I positioned the models on the edge of the cliff, allowing their poses to naturally flow, as the clouds came over and covered the sun, as the breeze blew cool air through their hair, their hands connected, the moment captured.
As I pressed my shutter for the final time that morning, tears fell from my eyes. The beauty. The majesty. The honor. I knew that was my final frame. There could be no more.
Gratitude poured from my soul, from my eyes. My vision of my hiking partner in a red dress on a mountain, strong, beautiful, came to life. The legacy and friendship between three people captured forever.
On a mountain.