The Personal Journey of Documenting Breast Cancer

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Luupe speaks with women who have been  photographing themselves and others as a therapeutic tool for survival.

Over the past 50 years, breast cancer has been on the rise in industrialized nations due to a complex mixture of factors including genetics, modernization, and improved screening procedures. In 2020, female breast cancer became the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease, with an estimated 2.3 million new cases worldwide. One in eight women in the United States is expected to be diagnosed within their lifetime.

Despite its current prevalence, breast cancer has a long history. Because of its visibility, it was the most frequently described form of cancer in ancient texts. Mastectomies have been recorded as early as 548 AD, its earliest notation as recommended treatment for Eastern Roman Empress Theodora. Despite its long existence, breast cancer remained largely uncommon until the Industrial Revolution, when advancements in science and technology brought about seismic shifts — but remained a matter discussed behind closed doors until First Lady Betty Ford spoke openly about her diagnosis in 1974.

Since then, breast cancer has come to the fore, and with it a host of conversations that center, question, and expand the way we think about the disease. Artists have historically been at the forefront of the discussions, pushing the boundaries of representation and visibility with the understanding that “Seeing is believing but feeling is the truth,” a sentiment first espoused by seventeenth English clergyman Thomas Fuller that underscores the ways in which empathy can transform our worldview.

A photographic diptych entitled So Help Me Hannah Series: Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma. © Hannah Wilke

No less than preeminent feminist artist Hannah Wilke (1940–1993) took on the subject of breast cancer in the photo diptych Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter (1978–81), currently on view in Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake. In the work, mother and daughter are shown topless, Wilke the picture of health and her mother ravaged by cancer that would claim her left breast. The juxtaposition is poignant, harrowing, and all the more profound by the fact that little more than a decade later Wilke would die of lymphoma.

In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Luupe speaks with five photographers who are reshaping the image of the disease to show a wide spectrum of experiences. Whether dealing with issues of age, race, or treatment, each of the artists profiled here transforms the camera into a therapeutic tool to expand and explore the way we think about health, illness, and survival.

Anna Rathkopf

Anna gets sad while eating lunch at a restaurant as she reflects on how much her life has changed. © Anna Rathkopf

“I found a lump on my 37th birthday,” says Czech photographer Anna Rathkopf. “Everything shifted — it was like there was no ground and you’re just falling into a black hole. When they tell you ‘cancer’ you feel like, ‘This is it. I’m going to die.’”

After speaking with her husband, Jordan Rathkopf, also a photographer, the couple understood the importance of documenting this moment in their lives. “We both felt the urge to grasp something and make space,” she says. “Photography is a time capsule, but it’s also something you can touch — something that is always here and will never leave. I tell everyone who is going through any crisis to write or paint, do something because it will help you.”

Between chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Anna and Jesse swim on vacation in Florida. Swimming helps her body recover from the aches and pains of chemotherapy. © Anna Rathkopf

Rathkopf carried a camera everywhere she went. “You have so much time waiting,” she says. With the understanding that objects could become metaphors for those whose suffering often goes unseen, Rathkopf understood the environment was filled with invisible histories. “I remember laying down on the examination table and taking pictures of the ceiling,” she says. I felt there were so many people before me who were looking at the same ceiling, feeling the same fear.”

Photography became an anchor to keep them grounded, providing a space where they could pause and reflect on everything going on. “Looking at myself, I understood what was happening inside of me and I could reconnect to myself because I began to feel disconnected from the person I was before the cancer.”

Anna’s hair rests on her knee as her mother shaves her head as her chemotherapy starts to cause her hair to fall out. © Anna Rathkopf

The camera also helped Rathkopf get outside the experience and develop new perspectives to lighten the mood. “I remember laughing at myself because I was running between the chair where I wanted to sit and the only available table that I could put my camera on,” she says. “Instead of thinking about my fear of dying, I was wondering, ‘Why did the table over there? That’s not the angle I want!’”

Anna and her mother hugging in our garden. The garden is a place of calm and healing for Anna and her mother, a hobby they have shared for generation with her grandfather. © Anna Rathkopf

The Rathkopfs discovered the mixture of humor and honesty, intimacy and tenderness allowed them to deal with Anna’s fight as a family, deepening their bonds. Since then, they have partnered with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for their 2020-2021 “Moments” Master Brand Campaign to offer that same care and consideration to other women today.

Alyona Kochetkova

” ‘Chemo brain’ is a common term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur during and after cancer treatment. I wasn’t able to concentrate on anything. Sometimes I felt like shattered glass.” © Alyona Kochetkova

On her 29th birthday, Russian photographer Alyona Kochetkova was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was shocked,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it could happen to me. My whole life changed. I had to give up all my plans and even my passion for photography faded. I felt like I was left alone with my fears.” To protect her compromised immunity, Kochetkova was forced to self-isolate. She felt her world shrinking and all that remained were trips to the hospital for chemotherapy and her apartment. “Sometimes it almost felt like being a prisoner,” she remembers.

“Me and the wig I used to wear during treatment. I had long hair before having cancer. Hair loss is painless, but can’t be easily accepted emotionally. My new ‘hairstyle’, in combination with my swollen face, used to irritate me.” © Alyona Kochetkova

After her first chemotherapy course, she noticed radical changes like bone pains that would flare up across her body. “It was like glowing embers,” says Kochetkova, who found herself yearning to visualize her experience. “After being a photographer for more than ten years, I was used to showing anything that happened in my life through photography and such big changes inspired me.”

“My plait, which I cut off when I started to lose hair. I had long hair for all of my life before. I felt there were big changes in my life, but I didn’t fully realize them.” © Alyona Kochetkova

For her series When I was ill, Kochetkova worked spontaneously, but also gave thought to the images she wanted to make, recognizing the limitations of her condition and circumstances. Turning the camera on herself, Kochetkova discovered a space for self-exploration that enabled her to negotiate feelings of depression, fatigue, and morbidity without giving way to a sense of fatalism. “I didn’t want to make a frightening or pitiful story,” she says. “I tell the story of people suffering from cancer all around the world. I made it open-ended, yet hopeful.”

“Sitting in my apartment’s kitchen table. After chemotherapy, I couldn’t force myself to eat the borscht, which I used to like. Having meals was a serious problem. I understood the vital importance of eating, but couldn’t help it. I had no appetite. Even my favorite food lacked taste and felt disgusting.” © Alyona Kochetkova

While she recognizes many cancer survivors would like to forget the period when they are ill, Kochetkova knew she had to document it. “It was a hard time, but it’s a part of life that taught me many things,” she says. “Being a person of faith, I understand that disease can be a test, not a punishment. It’s a challenge that can help us discover the things that really matter.”

Kerry Mansfield

© Kerry Mansfield

American photographer Kerry Mansfield was diagnosed with breast cancer at 31. After finding the lump herself, she went to the doctor. “It all happened so fast — it hit me like a train,” she recalls. “I was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer and they told me if we didn’t start treatment immediately, I would die. Less than four weeks later, I was getting a mastectomy, so there wasn’t a lot of processing time.”

Mansfield decided to start making self-portraits because she couldn’t find any images that felt relatable. “Everything was very regal and strong, black and white portraits,” she says. “That’s great and there’s a place for it but it didn’t make any sense to me because I was going through a living hell. I was like, ‘Where are those pictures?’ because I didn’t see anything bad. That prompted me to shoot the ugly, the wicked stuff that people don’t want to look at. Maybe I would never show them but who cares? I needed to document the process for myself. The cancer may kill you but the treatment is what too make down.”

Aftermath. © Kerry Mansfield

At the time, there were hardly any women in their 30s dealing with breast cancer, so Mansfield began working with an oncologist who specialized in younger women. “Because my cancer was extremely aggressive, I had to go twice as often for eight months of chemo,” she says. “When you start, they say it’s like a marathon because it’s cumulative. Every time you got back on your feet, it knocked you down again. You live in a horrible amount of pain for a very long time and you need to work to accept that because it is so, so bad.”

Aftermath. © Kerry Mansfield

To create the series Aftermath, Mansfield set up a photo studio in her bathroom to show the progression of her treatments, and the toll they took, not only on her body but on her mind and soul. Because she was shooting transparencies, she as took sick to get the film developed. When she finally did, she didn’t look at it for a long time. Two years later, Mansfield began to edit the work and decided to submit a photograph to PDN’s Photo of the Day. “I assumed only the fine art community would see it,” says Mansfield, who is still awed that Reddit picked up her work.

Aftermath. © Kerry Mansfield

Suddenly, her most intimate images were everywhere. Mansfield remembers walking into her office, and the photo was on everyone’s screen. “I wanted to curl up into a ball under my desk and just cry,” she says. But once the work took on a life of its own, everything changed. “I received an email from the boyfriend of a woman who had just been diagnosed and he said he was grateful because now he knew what she had to face, and he could be better prepared to help her. No one really knows what’s coming, it’s a big question mark, and maybe the photos can help somehow, just a little bit.”

Kea Taylor

© Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography & ZuriWorks

At the age of 25, Andrene M. Taylor was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Despite cancer disparities burdening the Black American community, Taylor did not see representations of her experience — and sought to correct that with the Exposures Project, a collaboration with her nonprofit Zuri Works and American photographer Kea Taylor (no relation). “Andrene is an amazing woman who took cancer by the horns and body slammed it,” says Kea Taylor. “She completely changed her diet and became a tri-athlete. She said, ‘I told my body, I haven’t appreciate you but if you get me through this, I will never not appreciate you again. I will treat you the best way I can.’”

© Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography & ZuriWorks

The Exposures Project is a multifaceted program that includes a support group that meets once a week, allowing the women to share their experiences and concerns. “It was therapeutic being in the circle with other Black women and hearing their stories because there were a lot of similarities in their lives,” Taylor says. “One week they were talking about the first time they learned they had cancer. The doctor told them that cancer is fed by stress, and if there is anything stressing them out, they needed to get rid of it — and they all immediately knew the cause.”

© Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography & ZuriWorks

In addition to the weekly sessions, each member of the project was given a camera so they could integrate photography into their own lives. Taylor then arranged for formal portrait sittings where each of the women could collaborate on how they wished to be seen. She also spent days with each of the women, photographing in their individual environments, and getting to know their personal lives.

© Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography & ZuriWorks

“My approach was heavily influenced by what I was leaning about them in the support group and my interactions with them in class,” Taylor says. “I felt like I was able to embed in their personal space. One of the ladies, Monica, told me she was normally sleeping at this time, and I told her that was fine. I wandered around the house, took some pictures with her cat. Then she woke up, picked up a bottle of Pepto Bismol and took it to the head. It was one of those things I couldn’t have imagined asking her to do but it was a very touching experience.”

© Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography & ZuriWorks

As Taylor speaks, the memories wash over her in waves, bringing back memories of joy and pain. Her voice constricts a little as tears some to her eyes. After Monica passed, her husband contacted Taylor, wanting to purchase the portraits for her children so they could remember their mother, but Taylor demurred and gave them for free.

“Monica was so strong and beautiful, and that’s how she wanted to be remembered,” she says. The time making portraits gave Taylor what she describes as “a new respect for life. They gave me a master class in handling adversity with grace, humor, and strength. There is no other job that I have had that felt more meaningful.”

Iri Greco

“A lot of people ask me why I didn’t want to get a wig, but I was burnt out from twenty years of wearing wigs..” ©Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media

American photographers Iri Greco and Jim Fryer of BrakeThrough Media first met Sarrah Strimmel, former Broadway dancer turned yogi, on a photo shoot for Lululemon in Montauk, New York. “Sarrah is magical,” Greco says. “She has this incredible energy and an enormous hear full of passion. We were shooting on the beach from five in the morning until seven p.m. and she gave us her full, undivided attention. At one point, she was wearing a surfing bathing suit and I had to readjust her breasts. Sarah was very bohemian and comfortable with her body. She said, ‘Get right in there and fix it.’”

“These walls provide a bit of a battle ground memorial, open for tours around the carnage.” © Iri Greco / BrakeThroughMedia

They stayed connected after that shoot through social media, which is where they later learned of Sarah’s breast cancer journey. “Sarrah had cancer in her left breast and decided to remove them both. She posted deep, unedited, uncensored stories about chemotherapy and breast reconstruction that took my breath away,” says Greco, who was immediately moved to reach out. “I told her these stories were so important and empowering, and that if she ever felt like documenting what she was going through, Jim and I would be honored to do anything. She wrote back immediately and that’s how The Embodiment started.”

“Intensely fragile. A play of op-position. All of my femininity seemingly stripped from me, yet I’ve never felt sexier.” © Iri Greco / BrakeThroughMedia

Having established a foundation of trust and mutual respect, the project came together intuitively. “Photography provided a structure and gave Sarrah a creative outlet during treatment when everything was so hard physically, psychologically, and emotionally,” Greco says, “After a really hard day, she would say, ‘This is what I was going through. How do we capture that?’ I think it was very motivating and cathartic because it gave her a way to connect what she was feeling inside — which is why we called it The Embodiment.”

“When you are losing your sense of self, sometimes you feel like your mind is going with it; Or sometimes you justlike to shake up the neighborhood.” © Iri Greco / BrakeThroughMedia

With the project, the trio could delve beneath the surface, delving into the intense, intimate realms where vulnerability becomes a source of strength and courage. “From the get go, Sarrah said, ‘I don’t understand where pink ribbons came from with cancer. It makes me want to scream. It’s radiation burn and vomiting and fear,’” Greco says. “When you talk about illness, sometimes it can be a little abstract. We wanted to find a way to process what she was going through. Bringing it back to a primal, graphic, textural feeling, Sarah could convey the reality of it.”

“When you are losing your sense of self, sometimes you feel like your mind is going with it; Or sometimes you just
like to shake up the neighborhood.” © Iri Greco / BrakeThroughMedia

One day in the studio, Greco had an epiphany. “I told her, ‘I feel like I am looking at the woman that Sarrah was going to become in 20 years, yet it’s happening in front of my eyes in these few months. You’ve become the woman you were meant to be.’ It was such an emotional experience for us both to realize she would never be the same person again, for better or for worse. Not every survivor story is this neat little ribbon. It impacts you for the rest of your life.”