Photo narratives of breast cancer and a feminist perspective

“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” – Susan Sontag, Illness as a Metaphor

“I see myself neither as ‘heroine’ or ‘victim’, but merely as a person in struggle.” – Jo Spence

Cancer kills. It can mutilate, destroy, scar and cause immense pain. It transfigures and shapes the body and the individual. Those it affects can be variously sufferers, victims, survivors and heroes. The language of cancer betrays the ways in which disease terrifies, fascinates and informs our experience of our own body and mortality.

I met the feminist and artist Isabella Borrelli in September 2015 and was introduced to her photography. In her own words, the project Her “is a spontaneous project: it’s about life and loss, it’s about the breast cancer of my mother, it’s about the death of my father and, moreover, it’s about my obsession for bodies. An obsession can’t be fixed, Her gives me the absolution from my dad’s death, a death which was unexpected”.

Her is a series of photographs shot in black and white that use light to illuminate the bodies of women affected by cancer and other life-changing illnesses. The photographs are stark and frequently focus on the scars and other bodily changes wrought by cancer. They depict either the body or the face, never both within the same frame. The women are either naked or partially clothed.

Borrelli’s work is part of a tradition of female photography which seeks to present the experience of cancer away from a clinical setting

There is a danger inherent in photographic narratives of disease. Obsessive focus on the corporeal can risk erasing the individuality of the subject. But rather than objectifying the women depicted, the focus upon the hands of the women and the texture of the skin creates an intimacy between subject and viewer. Each woman uses her hands to frame her body, emphasising touch rather than pain and ownership rather than voyeurism.

In one photograph, the scars below a woman’s breasts are lit so as to appear embossed with silver. In reality, the raised skin of the hypertrophic scars has turned a silvery colour as it has healed. The effect is reminiscent of surgical staples, a reminder of the medical procedure that created these scars. But through Borrelli’s lens, the scars also suggest jewellery or filigree. Like the prosthetic limbs worn by amputees such as Viktoria Modesta, which she states, challenge ideas of “what an amputee might look or act like”, the women in Borrelli’s photography present their bodies in a way that that is unapologetic, yet also aesthetically framed.

Borrelli’s work challenges the mainstream narratives of both disease and the female body. Her distinctly female gaze allows the bodies of women with cancer to be aestheticised but not eroticised, vulnerable but not powerless and naked but not nude. Her work is part of a tradition of female photography which seeks to present the experience of cancer away from a clinical setting: a setting that often disempowers women and renders them objects of medical curiosity even as it attempts to help them.

Spence’s work does not allow us to look away

The work of Jo Spence is a vital part of this tradition. She was born in London in 1934, and her work demonstrates the way that photography can be both art and activism. Her work is political and depicts the female body in a way that runs counter to media and historical narratives of idealised femininity and beauty.

She writes: “One morning, whilst reading, I was confronted by the awesome reality of a young white-coated doctor, with student retinue, standing by my bedside. As he referred to his notes, without introduction, he bent over me and began to ink a cross onto the area of flesh above my left breast. As he did a whole chaotic series of images flashed through my head. Rather like drowning. I heard this doctor, whom I had never met before, this potential mugger, tell me that my left breast would have to be removed. Equally I heard myself answer, ‘No’. Incredulously; rebelliously; suddenly; angrily; attackingly; pathetically; alone; in total ignorance.”

In The Picture of Health?, Spence documents the way in which the medical establishment transforms the person into an object. In one photograph, she shows herself receiving a mammogram, her breast in the jaws of two x-ray plates. In another, we see the faces of three doctors, their faces hidden in masks, looming over the operation table.

Additionally, in The Picture of Health? and Narratives of Disease, another of Spence’s works, she uses her own body as a site for exploring the ‘imperfect’ female body. Cancerous bodies become sites of abjection. When we look at diseased bodies, they remind us of our own precarious mortality and of the reality of death. This fear is transformed into disgust and horror and these emotions enable us to distance ourselves from what frightens us. Spence’s work does not allow us to look away. Her body is placed in the centre of the frame, naked and emblazoned with the word “monster” – mocking and challenging the viewer.

It is an indictment on Western society that depicting the body of an overweight and unconventionally attractive middle-aged women is a political act in and of itself

Borrelli’s work is not as confrontational as Spence’s work. The subject of Borrelli’s work is not herself but her mother and other women. It is a sympathetic rather than interrogative gaze. But her photography serves a similar purpose by stating that disease is not a battle, won or lost. It is instead a process which irrevocably changes the identity of those it affects, but does not diminish their humanity. Her is feminist, in that it denies the cultural narratives that depict women as sexual objects or not at all.

Spence and Borrelli use photojournalism to complicate the reality of breast cancer and disease. It is an indictment on Western society that depicting the body of an overweight and unconventionally attractive middle-aged women is a political act in and of itself. But Spence goes further than this, by turning the lens on the medical community which often conspires to erase her identity and her agency. Borrelli, too, returns a sense of agency to her subjects, by photographing them away from a medical setting, in bedrooms and living spaces.

In an image saturated world, alternative ways of depicting the female body are vitally needed. Pornography, television, magazines and cinema combine to create a sense of airbrushed hyperreality – whereby normal female bodies, those of you, your friends, your family, your community – come to seem aberrant. Cancer patients are often erased from the media entirely. If they do appear, they are plucky survivors, sexless and long-suffering. The Pink Ribbon campaign, although undoubtedly important in raising money for breast cancer research, has become increasingly commodified and co-opted by businesses eager to improve their public image. Slogans such as “Save the Ta-Tas”, the name of one cancer awareness organisation, are both patronising and reductive.

Until women and their bodies can simply exist and tell their own stories, rather than be condemned, ignored or airbrushed, photojournalism will remain a vital tool of feminist activism.

The images are all used with permission from the artists.
Image 1: By Isabella Borrelli. A naked woman is sitting , her hands crossed in front of her. She is shown from below her neck down to her waist. One of her breasts has been surgically removed.
Image 2: By Isabella Borrelli. A woman’s naked reclining body, shown from below the neck to her hip as she lies on a bed. Beneath her breasts, there are marks that look silver.
Image 3: By Jo Spence. A woman is standing with her breast clamped into a mammogram machine. She holds onto the machine and looks up into the distance, uninterested or stoic.
Image 4: By Jo Spence. Three people in medical coats and gloves, photographed from the perspective of a patient lying down – they are looking from above and crowding in. They have white face masks over their mouths. One holds a metal dish with what looks like scissor handles protruding.

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