Another Kind of Ordinary

Meet Sara.

 

Sara came to me for a photoshoot for the Essence of Woman project after her first mastectomy and a few weeks before her second one was due. Neither Sara nor I knew at the time what an impact these images would have on us, and as a consequence, we have both been sitting with them for a while, trying to figure out what to do with them. We never expected to feel about them the way we do. I am not sure we are necessarily any the wiser, but we have decided that we can hold them back no longer, and as such, we have decided that their story is to be shared, in the hope that they might make this incredibly important journey slightly less overwhelming for others.

This blogpost is a collaboration between myself and Sara. I interviewed Sara and it is Sara’s words and my images that have come together in this post.

CD – Why did you decide to have a photoshoot?

S – It was for myself, for me to see myself as I am now, and to show that I am different on the outside (physically) and that I have had to find a new ‘normal’ inside. I am still the same deep down – battered but wiser, luckier than I thought possible and able to wear my scar (scars now) with pride; my badges of honour. The images were just for me – a record really, of the different aspects of my life as a business woman, mother and wife and that was the theme we chose for the shoot. Initially dressed as each persona, then removing the clothes, revealing the scar and showing that underneath the physical and the emotional scars, I am still there. Stronger and wiser. Very glad to be here.

CD – As we were shooting, it was like an out-of-body experience for me and when I came to edit the images, I was shocked at how powerful I found some of them to be. The scar was really important, but what surprised me was that in the end, the shoot wasn’t about the scar, it was about you – the ‘essence’ of you. What do you think?

S – Having never thought of having my photograph taken at all, nevermind naked, and especially not by a stranger, I couldn’t believe that the images showed the ‘me’ I know. They truly portrayed the journey from the complete devastation, seen in the first few images (below), to more than survival – more than an acceptance – to a new normal which actually (surprisingly) felt really good.

CD – Originally, these photos were just for you. What changed? Why are you now OK with them being in the public domain?

S – Since having had the surgery, I have been talking to more and more women who have been through a similar experience and I was so shocked to hear how some women don’t feel they can leave their house after surgery, some don’t even feel able to tell their families! I thought, that if sharing my experience even on a small level helps in any way, then I will share them. I think all the brave and wonderful men and women who have been hit like a bolt out of the blue by any life-threatening illness, need to know that there is life beyond. I also hope that seeing these images, seeing the scars, will help others to understand what they might look like after the surgery – what to expect and that that’s OK.

CD – The first images in the series are very raw. Why did you want to have these images in particular taken?

S – These images show in every way, everything I felt when I first found out that I had cancer. For me, they show it all; how small and utterly helpless I felt. How overwhelmed it made me feel. Everything you think you already know, everything you have, is completely altered with the words  ‘you have cancer’. As it turns out, not all for the bad.

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 CD – How long did you have between diagnosis and surgery, and did you consider having reconstructive surgery – implants?

S – From diagnosis to surgery was 4 weeks. Pretty quick. Very scary. A whirlwind. I decided against reconstructive surgery at the time. I personally feel very strongly that women should be able to make a much more informed decision about reconstructive surgery and whether they really need or want it. I’m so glad I didn’t.
I don’t think it is appropriate to expect them to be able to decide whether or not to have implants, in the turmoil that is the 4 weeks from diagnosis to surgery. I would like women to see their scar(s) as a testament to their bravery and strength, and to allow themselves time to adjust to the new world they find themselves in before they embark on such radical surgery. One of the problems is that when the medical profession shows us images of reconstructive surgery or of the scars, they don’t really have any ‘real’, ‘ordinary’, images of everyday women. I didn’t even see any pictures. Just diagrams – and they were too clinical. Women need to know that they can have the reconstructive surgery later on, when and if they feel it is right for them. They also need to know the physical consequences of any of the surgery. The healing often takes a lot longer than we are told.

CD – Have you healed completely now? How long did it take? Did you have to do any rehabilitation and when were you able to go back to work?

S – I was lucky to have work colleagues that could treat my scar and give me physio. My arm was in absolute agony and without the treatment and support from my fellow osteopaths, I don’t know what I would have done. It would have been a longer journey to recovery. I was told that I could drive within two to three weeks after my operation. I was left with a sheet of exercises to do each day and sent home to recover. So although my care throughout my hospital experience was very caring and kind, I felt like I was left to do the rest alone. Had I not been an osteopath and known how vital the exercises were, I wouldn’t have done them, simply because it was so painful and at first, seemingly ineffective. I’m so glad I did do them as they were great exercises and I now have full arm movement, but it took me a year. Also, there was no advice or treatment offered about the scar. I knew that although it was agony and revolting, I had to massage the actual scar daily from about two weeks post-op, to ensure that I was left with a smooth, un-puckered scar, that didn’t hold back my arm movement.

So yes, I have healed completely now – 15months later and the proof for me is that these photos feel like me and not someone who is scarred.

CD – How was your husband during all this time – and your family?

S – My husband was incredibly supportive all the way through – it wasn’t easy and not knowing what to expect after the surgery was hard. Very few men (or partners) are informed of or know what to expect, which is another reason it would be better for everyone if we were able to see real scars on real people. I think it would make us less scared, would help not only us, but also our partners to know what we were going to have to deal with and allow us to be mentally, better prepared. It can be a real shock when you first see the scars – for both people.

CD – What about family and friends – did you share your experience with them? Was there someone for you to offload to and get support from? Or – did you have a support group to go to?

S – My family and friends knew about the cancer and the surgery but you don’t tell the truth about how you really feel to most of your friends and family, especially if you have been as lucky as I have. It feels as if you shouldn’t be ungrateful and moan about how hard it is. So, how it REALLY feels, how scared, how small and how incapable I sometimes felt, stayed with me. I felt as if I couldn’t express myself on some of the bad days because quite frankly I was lucky to be here. It was exhausting feeling as if I had to try to keep up appearances – the smallest thing can knock you sideways and actually only the people who have been through it will truly understand that. The most surprising thing that I have learnt on this unexpected journey is that it is not all bad, it is a blessing, you get a chance to see life in a different way and you really can go on living!

My hope is for these images that you captured, to show that anything is possible. It was the most surprising and fun day I have spent in ages. Surprising because I have never dreamt of being photographed naked by a stranger (by anyone in fact!) and it was nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be! You made it seem so normal and easy and you actually saw ME.  They’re not just photos, they are me, the person inside. I am not just my scars – I am more than them. It was really important for me to remember that. It was the best therapy. It is sort of living proof that I am OK, and still me and that actually you can’t tell I have those scars unless I show you…

CD – I find it really difficult to put into words how this shoot made me feel. I am very proud of the photos, though really I don’t feel that they were anything to do with me. As soon as the shoot began I felt like I was just a vehicle through which these images were going to be created. It is hard to explain. Jackson Pollock said:

When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get-acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about…the painting has a life of its own”.

I think this puts it pretty succinctly. There was an energy and a force driving me on and I really just let it happen and enjoyed the ride. Sara was an absolute joy to work with – she was so brave and committed to the idea of the shoot. I wish more women would have something like this done – I am told it is very therapeutic. We talked about everything; families, life, cancer, operations, work – everything and anything. We spent a good few hours in the studio getting to know each other during this shoot and I am now proud to call Sara my friend. She was so brave during the shoot and even more so, in deciding to release these images now, I am overwhelmed by her courage. I sincerely hope that more people will come forth and have this experience or that simply, that they will benefit from seeing Sara’s images on medical and emotional grounds and understand that there is hope. It is possible to have a life after cancer (or any other illnesses) and things really can get better. 

To view a few more of Sara’s images from the shoot, please visit my website: http://christinadithmar.smugmug.com/Clients-Galleries/Essence-of-Woman-/Sara/

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Why I love photographing…Women

This is going to be the first in a series of ‘Why I love photographing…‘ There are all sorts of things I love to photograph, but the reason this is the first is because I have truly realised in the last few months that my passion is portrait photography, and especially photographing women.

As women, we grow up with images of long-legged, well-endowed, perky-breasted Barbie Dolls and super skinny, beautiful Super Models and subconsciously – and consciously – we think that this is the way we SHOULD look – not to mention TV shows like Baywatch and any of the American sitcoms, soaps and dramas (there are too many to mention!). We very early on begin to think about all the things that are ‘wrong’ with the way we look, rather than embracing the way we look and loving ourselves as we are. I have noticed that even my daughter who is a complete tomboy has a totally distorted view of her body and her self-image. She compares herself to other girls in her class and in the school playground and even at the age of 6 she was already saying she was fat or that she had a big belly – which incidentally she didn’t/doesn’t – but it was in comparing herself to the others, that for some reason she aligned herself to the idea of being fat. I have always been very careful about the language I use around as far as body-image is concerned, and have never made a big deal out of it, but it very noticeable that it is from such an early age that we are confronted with images and ideas of what we should look like, rather than images depicting what we do look like and how different and glorious (in our differences) we all are.

Essence of Woman

Essence of Woman

As we get older, these limiting and often destructive self-beliefs stay with us into adulthood. When we grow boobs, get pregnant, grow bigger boobs, get a belly, get a bigger belly, lose the belly, lose the boobs, have more children, develop scars, suffer during hormonal changes, fight our way through menopause, go through depression, end up with a hysterectomy etc all these beliefs shift and change, and not usually for the better (at least not for a while, and often not without help)- they often get worse and leave us without a clue as to who we are or how to feel good about ourselves.

This is where I hope I come in. The reason why I love photographing women is that through the medium of photography, I hope to be able to not only show women how beautiful they really are – even if they have forgotten – but also show them how other people see them. I can’t count how many times someone’s partner or husband has told me that the woman in their lives is the most beautiful thing on earth and that she just can’t see it herself. It is so difficult to see ourselves objectively. I for one, hate my own smile. I don’t like my teeth, but if ever I mention this, people inevitably say ‘what’s wrong with them?’ – they can’t se what I see – and likewise, I cannot see what they see. We are terribly self-critical, more so, I believe, than most men.

Photography can be such an amazing aid in rediscovering one’s inner and outer beauty. I can’t recall ever doing a portrait or boudoir shoot where I didn’t think the person was beautiful in some way. To me, it is all about the person and finding out who they are on the inside and then capturing how they shine. When you see that ‘shine’, you see their beauty – both inside and out. Being able to capture that, is why I want to be a photographer and why I love photographing women. Helping women feel beautiful, helping women feel special, helping them regain part of what has been lost or forgotten. It is such an immense privilege really and being there when they see the images, is really special. It is, however not just about the final images. When a woman walks into my studio, nervous and a little anxious about being there and not really understanding how she got there (emotionally), seeing her relax, seeing her start to have fun and then once the shoot is over, saying upon leaving ‘I didn’t think I could do that, but I would do it again!’ THAT is why I do what I do. THAT is why I love photographing women.

Tips for photographing women

This is a whole other blog post really, but if I was to just give 3 tips for photographing women, I would say:

1 – If possible, meet with your clients in advance of the shoot. Get to know them a little bit, make them a coffee and chat with them to see what it is they are after and what they want to achieve – and most importantly WHY they want to have a shoot in the first place.

2 – Pinterest! I always send my clients away with some homework. I ask them to set up a Pinterest board and share it (with me in advance of the shoot) full of images for inspiration for their shoot! We all want very different things, like different pieces of art, have various ideas of what beauty is – so by giving them some homework and making them think about the sort of things that inspire them, I am giving them ownership of the shoot, so the shoot becomes a two-way thing and they can truly feel a part of it, rather than an object within it.

3 – Don’t worry! If for some reason the shoot isn’t working – your client is ultra nervous or perhaps something is just not clicking – just breathe! Take a break, have a laugh, make a coffee – and don’t be afraid to tell your client that you might want to try something else… even if it means redoing the make-up, or changing clothes. Of course it is important that you are in control so that your client doesn’t feel any more nervous than they already are, but the most important thing is to be REAL, to be CONGRUENT. Don’t pretend something is working if it isn’t…take 5 and fix it! Guess that goes for all subjects!

Essence of Woman

Essence of Woman

If you would like more information on my Essence of Woman project or would like to talk to me about booking a session or seeing what is involved in having your photograph taken by me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch either via social media or email: christina@christina-dithmar-photography.co.uk

Stripping it bare, taking it back, making it work.

The power that comes from knowing when something isn’t working, stopping, breathing, changing it, and making it work.

This week my blog is all about what happens when something isn’t going the way I want it to, and what I have to do to make it work – in my photography life… though the lesson is well learnt everywhere else too!

Last week I had a friend of mine’s wife come in for a shoot. We had met for about an hour the week before, just to get to know each other. I immediately felt incredibly comfortable with her and actually felt like I had known her for years. I really value meeting people before a shoot, as I totally believe that the way I photograph people and perhaps women in particular, is about getting to know them first. I very often meet my clients in advance of the shoot so that we can chat over coffee about what they might like, what their reservations are and what sort of things inspire them. I often send them away with a Pinterest link – if they don’t have one already – and ask them to start building a mood board or inspiration board and to share it with me, so that I will have an idea of who they are and what they like, before we get into the studio.

This particular lady (Kate) opted for a make-over so it was really important to get the mood board going. There were some amazing photos on there, very colourful, lots of crazy make-up and hair, women with long, gorgeous dreads, punks etc, and her creative and artistic side really shone through the choice of these pics, so by the time we got into the studio, both Michelle (from Bie Hair/makeover) and I were super excited. We knew we could go all out there both in terms of make-up and photography.

As Michelle started to apply the make-up (bright, crazy, pink, orange and green) it became apparent that we could go a little bit further, and the further we went, the more punky it got. Kate had the most amazing hair, which Michelle curled and then put up in a sort of fake Mohican. It looked incredible. Kate has quite a few piercings and tattoos as well as a totally unique style – it all went really well together. Then it was time for the shoot.

We started shooting – firstly with a few standard portrait shots. I always like to simply shoot and see what my lights are doing first, before moving them (and/or my subject) around to see what different effects I can get. I don’t tend to build the picture first, but instead, take lots of pictures and try lots of different things. I know some photographers work differently, placing their subjects, moving them slightly, waiting for the right shot before shooting. I am just not comfortable working this way, as I feel that the subject gets bored too easily and the energy of the room becomes less vibrant, less ‘energetic’.

What quickly became apparent to me was that even though the make-up looked awesome, it was making Kate look too harsh under the lights.

Kate is not harsh – she is soft, vibrant, open, friendly, calm, beautiful, womanly, funny and quirky, but somehow we had created a look that made her quite hard – almost impenetrable. For me that wasn’t Kate. I love this photo (left) as you know how I feel about the dark, but it is not really Kate and I wanted Kate to shine… I also think that we were not actually as comfortable with her in make-up as we thought we would be – I say we, because it really is a 2-way thing!

I asked her to take her hair down, and magically straight away, we both began to relax. The shots were definitely getting better and the result was that Kate was more ‘Kate’ (I now sound like that ad for hair colour – apologies). But still, it wasn’t quite right. That’s when I decided to turn it around 360. I asked Kate to go and remove the punk make-up whilst I breathed deeply for a few minutes, telling myself I was doing the right thing. I was right. This time, it really worked. The session completely changed from being something that seemed a little difficult – a little put on, affected even – to something that was easy, natural and fun. We both commented on how much more relaxing it became.

It was a bit of a milestone for me as I am not always good at knowing when to change something, even though it is not working, but thankfully I listened to my inner voice and realised that if we were going to get the shots we wanted, it was important to go back to the beginning, strip it all back and start again. I am so glad I did. I learnt a powerful lesson that day – in fact I learnt a few. The first is that if something is not working, change it. The other is that if we want to push the boundaries, we should do so half way through the session, when everyone is into it and have become relaxed and happy, not at the beginning when we are finding our feet. It has to be something that grows, not something that is forced. The third? – my intuition is usually right.

I am really grateful to Kate for being such an amazingly good sport, for being great company and for following my lead, without doubting me, throughout the whole thing. I have asked her to come and sit with me and go through the images with her artistic eye (not with a self-critical one) so that I can learn some more. Hopefully she will have a look at some of my other images too. I really value her opinion and I think a bit of positive criticism is really important when you are trying to grow as an artist (of any kind). I should just end by saying that Kate did love some of the images, even some of the beginning shots, but that we both preferred the natural ones, where she was simply Kate; with Kate’s essence shining through, and that of course is whole point of the Essence of Woman Project.

If you would like to know more about the Essence of Woman project you can find lots of information on my website by following the link. If you would like to chat with me about having a shoot, then feel free to give me a call on 07882 534 115 or email me christina@christina-dithmar-photography.co.uk. Thanks for reading! xx