Reflecting on an image

In preparing for an upcoming talk, I’ve been thinking a lot about this image.

My mastectomy and reconstructive surgery was a just month away when I finally had my hospital “before” photos taken. I’d canceled twice. These official photos would clinically document a version of me that would soon no longer exist. Subconsciously I sensed that they were a marker that would indicate I’d passed into new territory, and so I delayed them as long as I could.

The hospital wasn’t equipped with a dedicated photographic studio, so Maja Daniels and I found ourselves in the ophthalmology department, in a room that had been converted into a photo studio for the day. Large portable lights stood in the corners of the small room, one pushed close to a white porcelain sink and the other hovering just behind Maja. A blue screen hung from one wall. Maja became a sort of meta-photographer, photographing the photography of a patient’s official photographs.

The hospital photographer had quite an energy about her; I was more than a bit subdued. The room was cold (apologies from the photographer), and I was asked to strip down to the waist. I stood in front of the blue screen:

Arms up and out to side… click
face the corner of the room, arms behind the back (like this)… click
face the other corner… click
now the left profile… click
and right profile… click
and we’re done.

The session was perfunctory. In those brief moments, my living, breathing body became “a” body, an object. My breasts became specimens, their photographs referential imagery. The final records of something that would soon be excised and rebuilt with synthetic material.

It was a year later that Maja asked me to respond to some of her images, like this one, and I found my way to stitching over and into them. I tried to remember who that “before” person was. I held myself in my hands with care. The thread in my hand linked past to present, linked patient to artist.

I chose this preventive process, but that didn’t make the decision an easy one. Or the results natural-looking, naturally beautiful. Still, I would do it again. I have no regrets. I am grateful to have had the option.