Toronto Photographer Tackles the Stigma of Scars in New Photo Series
Natalie, one of many cancer survivors featured in a new photo series exploring the stigma surrounding scars, says she now has a "really good relationship with my scars because they tell a unique story." Photo: Alkan Emin
As we age, we all inevitably get a little banged up.
Like the concentric rings marking the age of a tree, scars are what we have to show for our time on this earth, chronicling bumps in the road. But more significant scars are signposts of events that change lives — and perspective.
In a series of projects, which feature portraits of “real” people cast via Facebook, Toronto photographer Alkan Emin — known for his fashion and celebrity portraiture, most notably his work with Jann Arden — has been tackling increasingly intimate subject matter, progressing from a white shirt series to achingly honest black-and-white nudes. “I want,” he says, “to get down to the truth of people.”
This time he decided to tackle the stigma of scars in our culture, to be the portal for his subjects to take back control of our gaze. “It was like saying ‘If you want to stare, here it is.’” The process moved him deeply: “It didn’t feel like I was actually shooting. You are opening that scar. By the end of the day, we stitch it back up.”
As for the subjects themselves, their feelings about their scars are as individual as they are, as unique as the surgeries and accidents they mark. But posing for Emin, they all agree, was a transformative experience.
Here are their stories, in their own words.
“My scar is a mental thing and a physical thing. This project fascinated me, the normalizing of scars. The idea that bodies that are not normal are beautiful.
“I volunteer with a charity called After Breast Cancer, which helps women who are underserved, underprivileged, get access to bras and prostheses. I also speak to third-year medical students about my experience with cancer, to help them learn how to talk to patients. And I’ve spoken with women before they’ve gone through surgery. It is a sisterhood: the reason why is sad, the sisterhood is not.
“Everybody goes through it differently. I chose not to rebuild. It is a deeply personal choice, and that’s just for me. My relationship with my scar is twofold. When I finally got all the bandages off, I took a long shower, chose not to look that day. I told myself you will when you are ready. The next day, I looked at my reconfigured body, much more okay with it that I expected. Because over seven months [of treatments], I had a lot of time to overthink, think and rethink. The acceptance was already there.
“A second surgery changed my scar a bit. When the staples came out, I thought it doesn’t look as good, but it’s okay. I don’t dwell on it much. I wanted to participate in Alkan’s project because what we see in magazine layouts are always the — quote — perfect body. Why isn’t this the perfect body, also?
“For me, it was saying this is normal, this is life. I’m just as beautiful without a breast. I’m a whole person, and it doesn’t make me less of a woman. Wearing no makeup for the shoot, being completely in the raw: it is mortifying in one sense and liberating in another.”
“Back in high school, in my early 20s and 30s, I had a really volatile relationship with my body. I’ve had 22 surgeries to date. Cancer came back three times. But I have a strong faith-based relationship. He gives you strength little by little.
“Anybody who is scarred would be not telling the truth if they said they were not upset at first. I looked at myself and cried. But now I’m healthy, I’m here and God is giving me my purpose helping and inspiring other women. My soul is beautiful, giving, caring, and soon what I saw in the mirror was the beauty in me. And now I have a really good relationship with my scars because they tell my unique story.
“My first cancer diagnosis was 2008. I was so down at one point, angry, depressed, but each phase of healing is a natural part of the process. Then you find the strength and the ability to move past it. It was 2016 when it returned for the second and third time, and I was amazed by how quickly I came out of the funk. I realized that at the end stages of healing, you want to move on and get into that stage of philanthropy. You just want to give back. So I came up with a platform — High Heal Diaries — to encourage women to share their stories. I’m a paralegal three days a week. The rest of the time I dedicate to my passion project.
“The biggest gift is to share your story so others can be empowered. Tell their stories. I’m a motivational speaker. I’m a certified coach practitioner. I offer individual women help during their journey, plus makeup and skin care. Because once you look at yourself in the mirror and you see beauty, it helps to transcend how you feel within.”
“I was born in Norway, moved here in 1990. My parents moved back and I stayed on. When I was 25, I came out of the closet. Coming out as gay was easy. An easy, natural thing for me to do. Coming out with cancer has been intensely difficult.
“I did this shoot to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was a big deal. I consider myself fearless, but this is something I had to prove to myself that I could do.
“I was diagnosed in the fall of 2018. It just threw me off, totally blindsided me. Because I thought I was superwoman and that I could handle anything and do anything, and this totally stopped me in my tracks. I have a visible scar. It doesn’t bother me because it is who I am, part of my journey, part of my life, and I can own that. But the emotional and mental scars have been the really hard part.
“I haven’t really been able to cry. I think that [the shoot] was the closest I’ve been to crying. I need to relieve some of the tension. I mean, I’m a good crier! Soppy movies, and I cry when I’m hormonal. I think there is an internal block that is stopping me from doing it. Part of it is the responsibilities you have as a mother, a partner, a business owner, a team leader, responsible to customers.
“I wasn’t going to tell anyone. Just be under the radar. Then with chemo, I had no hair, no eyelashes or eyebrows. So I set out to buy a big leather jacket. But came home in a gold lamé jacket instead. I owned it! And I have new faith in the human race: the year I went through with all the treatments was probably one of the best years of my life, if it wasn’t for the fucking cancer. My daughter, my partner, my internet family, my chosen family, close friends, my team: how they all stepped up to the plate way beyond my expectations.
“As for me, I had to tell myself to get over it. That’s why I ended up agreeing to pose for this shoot: to say this is who I am, this is me, this is what I have to live with and get used to the new me. It was me, coming out.”
“I’m on my third cancer now, just finishing treatment. And I’m an ambassador for After Breast Cancer. We champion survivors to navigate getting back into life. It is a joy for me because it reminds me how you have to go back to normal life, to tell people don’t dwell on it, you are resilient, you are worth it. Life is worth living: if I can do it, anybody can do it. I need to be here for my boys and for myself and people who love me and trust me.
“Scars have never bothered me. All of them are reminders life is precious. I’m showing my scars because I want to help with reducing stigma. I am an immigrant and a black woman. The stigma and taboos in different communities are very strong; they don’t talk about cancer, they don’t want anyone to know. For me, talking about it is where you get support, from someone going through, who can understand about it.
“This is no longer just a photograph. It is art.”
“I was having a shower one day and I felt a lump in my neck, like a boil or a zit. Then I found another lump on the other side of my neck. I had just started a new position at work, so I chalked it up to nothing. When I found another lump, I thought, oh, I better go to the doctor. I had a neck biopsy; it was inconclusive. So on the right side, I had five lymph nodes removed. That’s why the scar is so big on one side of neck.”
“I’m 6’6″, so people already look at me. I stand out, and now I have a big scar. Random people will ask me questions, like, ‘Were you stabbed?’ People are weird. I would never ask a stranger what happened to them.
“Once I started sharing my story, other people started sharing their stores with me. They were ashamed to tell their stories. But this is how we live and how we heal. I’ve healed so much hearing other people’s stories. So when I saw Alkan posting about this project on Facebook, I said, I have to be a part of that. It is taboo, and I have no shame.
“My scars are emotional. They tell my story of survival. I went through a battle. Scarring shows you have a story to tell.”
“I wasn’t feeling well, around early December last year. Then when I look back on it, I probably wasn’t feeling myself for six months. I went to hospital on Dec. 25 and was there for four weeks. They didn’t know what was the matter. Then in the cardiac ICU, they found a congenital heart condition. I could have gone my whole life without knowing it was a problem. I had open heart surgery in January, replaced my valve.
“I had had a particularly difficult year, with a pretty bad breakup, a parrot who was only three and he died, and then another pet sick for a long time. A really shitty year.
“It was like a physical manifestation of what I was like, so much heartbreak in the year. It was oddly poetic to have an actual breaking heart. It can all still be overwhelming.
“It seemed like a neat idea and a cool thing to do. Wasn’t until we were actually taking photographs that I focused on a part of myself that I wasn’t really used to yet. So much had been out of my control, this felt like a way to integrate it all, to work toward accepting who I’ve become.”
“I grew up in a large family of nine, extremely poor, on the Winnipeg river in a dinky town I couldn’t wait to get out of. I can remember people saying you’d make a wonderful model. Well, I started modelling and acting at age 61.
“I’m pretty much game for anything in life, and I try to challenge myself to do something new every year. I wanted to do this project with Alkan because I think people would maybe not be as embarrassed to know that scars are just part of life, these things happen. Medicine and science do the best they can to fix you up, and this is what is left behind.
“2020 marks the 30th anniversary – if you can call a living with cancer an anniversary. When I was told at the age of 33 (just having gone through a very difficult divorce) that I had to undergo a physical to compete in the Canada Summer Games, as an athlete of many sports and currently pursuing the sport of archery, I thought nothing of it. I was young, fit and paid very close attention to living a healthy lifestyle. A routine physical led to a lumpectomy. Who gets cancer at 33?
“So, I am done radiation late that October, the burns for the most part have healed, and it is a clear January evening. I decide to take a walk down our country road to get the mail. On the way back, I notice a snowmobiler travelling at a rather great speed heading toward me on the side of the road. At the speed he was going meant that I had nowhere to go, and he slammed right into me. I hit the road like a crumpled rag doll and was unable to move. Cold and unsure how long it would take to have someone find me (my two kids were home alone), I simply called out for help. A lady heard my calls as she went to check on her cattle. The vertical scar on my abdomen is a reminder of that cold January night.
“Fast forward 15 years, showering I could feel something unusual but not really like the first lump, but my intuition told me just maybe it was back. So here I am at 63, having survived breast cancer twice. My younger sister (nine years younger), not so lucky. It will be three years ago in October since I lost her, and my scars are also her scars.
“Scars are a constant reminder of the twists and turns life often delivers. They are also a reminder that it takes strength and courage to soldier on at times in life, and deep down we all have that strength and courage. It is just harder for some to dig deep enough to find it when it is needed but it is there!”