Taking back 'beautiful'
Pasadena’s ‘ONE in eight’ photography project recasts the image of life after breast cancer
By Joe Piasecki 09/23/2010
Going bald from chemotherapy and readjusting to her body after cancer had forced the sudden removal of her left breast, the thought of standing nude in front of a camera was far from Paige Gillian Hornbacher’s mind when the mother of three young children moved from New York to South Pasadena three years ago.
But in her new home Hornbacher quickly found support from a growing sisterhood of breast cancer survivors, and feelings of loss have now given way to newfound strength and self-confidence — a personal transformation that has compelled her to share the image of her body with the world.
Portraits of Hornbacher and seven other local women will be featured Sunday at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church in the first public unveiling of “ONE in eight: Pasadena Portraits,” a photography collection that celebrates the beauty of post-surgical bodies in order to change perceptions about life after breast cancer.
The exhibit is the first of many for the Pasadena-based nonprofit One in eight, founded by breast cancer survivor Devon Williams after she underwent a mastectomy at Huntington Hospital. The name refers to the odds that an American woman will one day experience breast cancer.
“There’s a fear with this disease that you will lose your womanhood if they take your breast. It isn’t true,” said Williams, a talent manager and mother of two who hopes to develop collections of eight photographs each in eight different cities around the country.
“ONE in eight: Pasadena Portraits,” the first set completed, went into production last year with support from the Pasadena Arts Council’s EMERGE sponsorship program to assist budding nonprofits.
Williams’ idea quickly gained momentum after it was featured in a March 2009 cover story in the Pasadena Weekly, with a number of local breast cancer survivors volunteering to participate and Pasadena photographer Catherine Money signing on to photograph them. Money and Williams chose to exhibit the images as 30-by-40-inch color prints.
“These women haven’t lost their sexuality or sensuality; they’ve gained a new sense of it. There was a place that each woman would come to within the photographic session and that everyone felt,” Money said of the process — one that became profoundly personal when she decided to photograph her 80-year-old mother.
Elizabeth Money, whose image from “One in eight: Pasadena Portraits” appears on the cover of this newspaper, lost her breast to a radical mastectomy decades ago and struggled to recover emotionally.
“For 30 years I saw her dealing with lack of self-esteem. When she looked at herself in the back of the digital camera it was the first time since her surgery that she had looked directly at her own body,” Money said of her mother.
Williams, who was present at each of the photo shoots and also had her portrait taken, described the sessions as a surprising catalyst for the women’s psychological recovery from surgery.
“What I loved to hear was how transformative it had been to take the pictures — that they had changed not just since their treatment, but since their picture,” said Williams.
“Even though I thought I was a completely different person coming through cancer, this was a second level for me. I didn’t realize how much baggage I was holding onto until I did this,” said “ONE in eight: Pasadena Portraits” participant Michelle Winfrey, an area mortgage broker.
Winfrey was photographed with her younger sister, Carole, a make-up artist in Oceanside who was diagnosed with breast cancer around the time of Winfrey’s initial recovery.
“The biggest misconception is you completely feel a devaluation of your beauty and self-worth because our society is so focused on the idea of beautiful, buxom women. By identifying not only the internal beauty of a person but also their physical beauty, the project speaks volumes to what we’re all feeling every day — the insecurity that I’m no longer a whole woman,” said Winfrey, a mother of four. “Everybody else is focusing on your internal beauty, but this is a whole different concept. I’d lost my confidence, but I regained it through this process.”
Changing bodies and minds
One in eight’s mission to pair internal healing with physical recovery also has the support of Dr. Dawn Hills, a breast surgical oncologist who treated two “Pasadena Portraits” participants at the South Pasadena Cancer Center.
“The thing that bothers me about society’s treatment of women is the great need to look sexual and gorgeous all the time so they look attractive to men. Here we have women going outside the bounds of what’s considered appropriate, showing in such a way that they’re no different than they were [before cancer surgery] and they don’t have to worry about someone else’s approval to feel good about themselves,” said Hills. “They’re doing something that was considered taboo — something to keep hidden — and the fact that this is coming out of the closet can only be a good thing.”
While advancements in reconstructive surgery have increased breast cancer survivors’ control over their physical beings, One in eight’s goal is empowering women to have a voice in how their bodies are perceived.
“It was kind of liberating. You see yourself in the pictures and — oh my God — they’re beautiful, and you see the pictures of other women and they’re beautiful too,” said Hornbacher, a City of Hope patient who chose breast reconstruction surgery after her bilateral mastectomy.
Improvements in medical science have also increased U.S. survival rates for breast-only cancer to 98 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute — making the more than 2.5 million who have recovered from the disease the largest group of cancer survivors in the nation.
The vast number of breast cancer survivors creates incredible social networking potential, a phenomenon that came into play in bringing “One in eight: Pasadena Portraits” to life.
When Hornbacher arrived a balding stranger in an unfamiliar town, neighbor and fellow breast cancer survivor Jan Ping extended a hand of friendship.
An Emmy-winning television makeup artist, Ping contacted Williams after reading about her efforts in the Weekly and later introduced the concept to Hornbacher. Ping also volunteered to be the portrait series’ on-set beautician as well as one of its subjects.
“The physical and emotional effects of cancer go long past treatment. We have to talk about this, and we have to change our perspectives on beauty,” she said. “I showed my picture to one woman who was going to have a mastectomy, and after seeing it she said it made her not so afraid.”
A reason to talk
Following Sunday’s one-day premiere event, “ONE in eight: Pasadena Portraits” will again go on display in October as part of “Healing Blue,” a series of fundraising performances by the Pasadena-based Lineage Dance Co. that are inspired by and dedicated to breast cancer survivors.
“Healing Blue” includes choreography by Artistic Director Hilary Thomas that was inspired by Annie Wells, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper photographer who turned the camera on herself to document her 2002 battle with breast cancer.
Wells, who until recently worked for the Los Angeles Times, had already lost her mother and eventually lost her sister to cancer.
For her photographic series “From an Arm’s Length,” — named for the distance from which she captured her self-portraits — Wells chose a much more documentary technique than the highly stylized “ONE in eight: Pasadena Portraits,” but her work also revealed an intense appetite for advancing discussion about breast cancer.
“I really didn’t have an intention behind it other than to just do the work, like you might write a journal,” said Wells, whose photographs have also inspired a documentary film currently in production. “It was my own personal record, but then it moved people when they saw it and grew on its own from a private piece of work to something that’s more public.”
Williams’ mission has also been widely embraced.
Earlier this year Brighton Collectibles’ Paseo Colorado location chose One in eight as its spotlight organization of the year, a designation that has also belonged to City of Hope and the Wellness Community–Foothills.
“There are going to be people who may not be ready for what we want to show them and are going to pull back from it, but we’re building momentum — it’s growing,” said Money.
Whatever your reaction, “it’s a great opportunity to have a community conversation,” said Williams. “It’s about looking and seeing and talking. This isn’t scary. It should be talked about — the way we see and think about women affected by breast cancer. It’s going to make it easier for somebody.”
“ONE in eight: Pasadena Portraits” premieres at 1 p.m. Sunday at Neighborhood Church, 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. The event is free. To contact Devon Williams, visit oneineoghtphotos.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Performances of “Healing Blue” take place at 8 p.m. on Oct. 15 and 16 and at 2 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Lineage Performing Arts Center, 89 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $15 to $25, or pay-what-you-can for women who have had a breast cancer diagnosis. Call (626) 844-7008 or visit lineagedance.org.