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A Photographer Is Taking Unflinching Portraits of Young Breast Cancer Survivors

BuzzFeed News spoke to the photographer behind a powerful project helping women see their scars as part of their beauty.

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David Jay is a photographer who's been shooting fashion for over 15 years. But for the last five years, he's focused his lens on a different subject: young breast cancer survivors.

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Jay is behind The SCAR Project, a series of large-scale portraits of breast-cancer survivors aged between 18–35 baring their mastectomy scars.

Since the project began, he's shot over 100 women from all over the world, including Australia, Mexico, Italy, Brazil, and India.

Jay told BuzzFeed News that in a society that places pressure on the body's perfection and hides breast cancer behind a little pink ribbon, he set out to confront our fears and inhibitions about life, death, sexuality, sickness, and relationships.

"It can be uncomfortable for the viewer," he said. "Reality is not always pretty. This is reality. Let's address it. The SCAR Project presents an opportunity to open a dialogue about issues we are not necessarily comfortable with."

Jay was inspired to start the project when his "beautiful, strong, and young" friend Paulina was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 29. Within two weeks she'd had a mastectomy.

"I had taken Paulina's picture a hundred times since she was 17. I saw her soon after her surgery and knew I would have to shoot her again. I took her picture perhaps because as a photographer, taking pictures is my way of confronting, understanding, and accepting the things I see."

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Jay told BuzzFeed News that the young women had already suffered greatly and that he hoped to pay tribute to their courage and spirit.

He wanted his photos to be raw, honest, and sincere: "I knew in my heart that compromising the visual integrity of The SCAR Project for the sake of easily digested beauty would serve no one."

Most media attention on breast cancer is focused on women over 40 years old, so Jay created The SCAR Project to raise awareness of younger sufferers, who have lower survival rates and die more frequently from breast cancer than any other cancer.

"More than 11,000 young women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the US alone," he said. "Worldwide, the number is enormous."

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As a fashion photographer, Jay felt he approaches nudity with a sense of both appreciation, and compassion, and that a great deal of trust is involved. "I am acutely aware of how emotionally exposed the subject feels standing in front of me, nowhere to hide literally or metaphorically. There is a beautiful honesty and truth in that moment."

Jay said the picture that meant the most to him was of Jolene, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 17 years old. He photographed her in 2010.

"I went out to photograph her in California and it was a beautiful but emotionally difficult shoot. Jolene was on a journey which, unless something drastically changed, was going to end relatively soon. She was in a wheelchair and basically on home care. This disease had completely transformed her body and her life.

"Knowing that it would be the last picture I would ever take of her, it was a very poignant moment."

Jolene died on 30 October 2011.

"She was one of the most inspiring women I have ever known," he said. "She was courageous, compassionate, and loving. She reminds us, educates us, and showed us how it is not only possible but so important to both live and die with beauty, grace, and dignity."

The project has received thousands of comments and messages from survivors saying it "gave them much needed inner strength", and thanking Jay for "sharing with the world what it means to earn and wear these scars".

One woman commented on the SCAR Project Facebook page: "I see my scars as a part of my beauty and who I am. They are a reminder of where I have come from, but they do not tell me where I will go."

Another said the project is helping her view her scars differently: "I'm hoping The SCAR Project will help me learn to accept my scars and my reconstructed breasts. I'd love to see a beautiful photograph of something I find so ugly. Maybe if my scars were viewed as art it would help me to heal."

One participant in the project, Vanessa, said her photo helped her be herself. "No covering up or masking the truth," she said. "No pretending that everything is fine. Here I am. This is me now. This is my life."

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