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:
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?
For beautiful eyes,
look for the good in others;
For beautiful lips,
Speak only words of kindness;
And for poise,
walk with the knowledge
that you are never alone.
A beautiful, young couple. In love and waiting for the arrival of their first child.
It was an honor to get to know them during their Maternity Portrait session.
They enjoy the outdoors and nature and were hoping to have their portraits
in the woods.
We were fortunate with a peek of sunshine on the day, it made the below freezing temperatures seem warmer, at least.
At their Image Reveal last night, they were excited to see the photographs
and relieved they didn’t look as cold in the images as we were while taking the photos.
Memories preserved for a life-time. She will never be eight months pregnant
with her first child again, except in her Maternity Portraits.
“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.