Cincinnati exhibits breast cancer survivor photos

Four years ago Vanessa Tiemeier, of Delhi Township, boarded a New York City-bound Greyhound bus to pose, bare-chested, for a photographer she had never met.

His name was David Jay, and he had spent much of his career as a fashion photographer, capturing striking images of perfectly formed, classically beautiful women.

But then, about five years ago, he began shooting young breast cancer survivors after his girlfriend's twin sister was diagnosed with the disease in her late 20s. He wanted to raise awareness that breast cancer could ravage young women as well as old: More than 10,000 women younger than 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. But he never expected his first subject and her friends to tell him that they found the process of being photographed - scars and all - to be empowering.

Those revelations led Jay to develop a series of photographs known as the SCAR Project, which stands for "Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality." Tiemeier, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 25, became one of Jay's first subjects after she saw a post from him on the Young Survivor Coalition's website. Her photo also became part of the SCAR Project exhibition, a collection of 30 large-scale portraits of 18- to 35-year-old women from all over the country that premiered in New York City last October.

And this weekend, in part because of Tiemeier's efforts, the exhibition will make its debut in her hometown. It opens to the public Friday at the Art Design Consultants Gallery Downtown in Cincinnati.

"I hope people see that breast cancer is more than charity runs and pink ribbons," said Tiemeier, now 29. "We are real people with many sides to us. Our physical scars usually aren't seen but are a big part of us."

The project - nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography based on an article on the front page of America Online last year - is jarring. One photo in the exhibition shows a woman revealing her pregnant belly protruding beneath a jagged scar where her right breast used to be. Another survivor who had a double mastectomy raises her arms above her head, revealing a winged pink ribbon tattoo on the right side of her chest.

And then there is Tiemeier. Jay captured the photo after her right breast had been removed and her short hair had just begun to grow back after she lost it to chemotherapy treatments. Her body faces to the side but her face is turned slightly to the camera.

"He has a talent of capturing your true emotion," Tiemeier said of Jay. "I just look so timid and unsure, still trying to accept the physical differences. There's so much that is behind my eyes in that photo that I didn't even know was happening."

What moved her to do this, to bare her body and her soul for the camera? A graphic designer by trade, Tiemeier said she's always better expressed herself visually than verbally. The photo was a way that she could communicate what she was going through without having to say a word. It was liberating.

"I tend to just tell people the good stuff," she said. "I think this was my coming out, in a way. This was the truth."

The truth was more than what any 25-year-old should have to accept. Tiemeier was diagnosed with breast cancer just nine months after her wedding, after an initial misdiagnosis of dense breast tissue. Chemotherapy, a modified radical mastectomy of her right breast and radiation treatments swiftly followed over the next seven months.

"We had just gotten married," said her husband, Billy Tiemeier, 29, who met his wife at a party when they were both college students. "We hadn't even figured out what side of the bed we were going to sleep on yet."

Despite his initial reservations about Jay's project, he got on the Greyhound bus with his wife to go to her first photo shoot with Jay (she did a second shoot in 2008). So did her younger sister, Christina Blust, now 27 and living in Terra Haute, Ind.

Billy Tiemeier said it's still difficult to look at the photos and to see the new reality of the woman he fell in love with. But he and Blust want people to see that reality through the photos in the SCAR Project, and not just the pink ribbons and endless parade of pink products that appear during breast cancer awareness month every October.

"What I want people to know is that it's physical pain," Blust said. "It's blood, it's scars, it's really awful things that you go through. It's trauma to the body, and it's trauma to the spirit.

But the women seem so strong, so vibrant in their expressions of who they are individually."

That's why Art Design Consultants Gallery owner Litsa Spanos agreed to put on the exhibit after 46-year-old breast cancer survivor Joules Evans, of West Chester Township, who also saw the SCAR Project premiere in New York, proposed the idea. It took some convincing.

"I'm in the business to show beautiful art, to make people happy and to make spaces amazing and come to life," Spanos said. "When I first saw the pictures, I was shocked. I don't have a whole lot of experience with breast cancer and with cancer in general. After the shock went away, I looked deeper into it and saw that this is a totally different type of beauty."

Jay discovered that, too.

"Previously, my pictures were very focused on this idealized version of female beauty," he said. "I think the SCAR Project has made me see beauty much further beyond that. It's the soul of a woman. That's what I set out to capture, the soul of a woman, and that's what's beautiful. That's something that can't be taken away with breast cancer."

Ultimately, the SCAR Project is not about breast cancer, Jay said. "Ultimately, the SCAR Project is about humanity and compassion and understanding and acceptance," he said. "It's about realizing that you don't know what's going on when you walk by someone on the street."

Tiemeier's battle against cancer is not over. After the mastectomy of her right breast, she also had prophylactic mastectomy of her left breast, a hysterectomy and both of her ovaries and half of her thyroid removed.

Last year, a full-body bone scan doctors ordered after she broke a finger showed cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, her lungs and her bones. And earlier this month, an MRI revealed a cluster of cancer cells in the lining of her brain.

The news was not a surprise but still not easy to hear, she wrote in a post on the SCAR Project Cincinnati blog. But she said that she is continuing radiation and chemotherapy treatments and being thankful for every day.

"I've said it before, but I really mean it . live with passion. Live with intention. Live healthy. Live with no regrets. Live Sincerely," she wrote.

"Life's not easy, but I am challenging everyone out there to live, really live. If for no one else, do it for me."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)