Ontario-based fashion photographer Ian Pettigrew was working on a book called Just Breathe, a photo series about adults with cystic fibrosis, when he was inspired to take things in another direction.
As he got deeper into the project, he told BuzzFeed News it was clear that there was a disproportionate amount of women being featured.
He decided instead to focus on strong, sexy women who have the life-threatening genetic disease, which causes a buildup of mucus, damaging the lungs and digestive system.
The 46-year-old named the project "Salty Girls: The Women of Cystic Fibrosis," which refers to one of the common symptoms of the disease: extremely salty skin.
Pettigrew, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 38, said the project was a big undertaking for him, bringing him all over the United States and Canada to photograph the women and raise awareness about CF.
He photographed 60 women, all between ages 20 and 40, wearing swimsuits, sultry outfits, or no clothes at all. The models were "excited to have a project finally focused on them and their specific issues," he told BuzzFeed News.
Much of the focus of the project is on feeling beautiful in your skin; half the women he photographed have had — or need — a double lung transplant.
"A lot of this is back to the issue of body shaming," he told the Huffington Post. "Women with no scars have it bad enough in this digital age; now grow up with massive scars across your belly, and scars from your double lung transplant," he says. "Seeing how positive they can remain when dealing with this horrible disease is inspiring."
He added that the photo series has had a major impact on the models themselves.
He said that after the project, one anonymous model said:
Over the years, I have become insecure of my body to a fault, and today, I take a stand. I will learn to appreciate, love, and nurture my body the way it should be. My body may be scarred due to all of the physical trauma I have had to endure with Cystic Fibrosis, BUT it will never define "ME" as a person. It will define my experiences and how it has shaped my perspective on MYSELF, and EVERYONE that is struggling.
Pettigrew added, "Once I think people actually read about the project, and the stories of these women, it changes your perspective."
Ultimately, the photographer said he hopes the series brings about awareness for the disease, helps the women feel beautiful in their skin, and inspires young women with CF.
"We believe awareness will lead to better research and funding," he said, "and of course, hopefully, a cure."