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home : features : features May 24, 2016

'of scars'
Portraits of breast cancer patients inspire and empower
Photos courtesy of "Of Scars"

"... Your scars, your story, make you who you are. It's about celebrating women, as individuals and as a group."-Kate Kunkel Bailey

by Norma Smith Olson

Kate Kunkel Bailey and Elli Rader met seven years ago when waiting tables at an Excelsior café. Both were working to support their creative passion for photography. They began working together on occasional projects, weddings and other shoots. When her mother was facing surgery for breast cancer four years ago, Bailey invited Rader to take pictures of her mother.

"I really trusted Elli and I wanted her there," Bailey said. "I was a little too close to it."

Rader wrote the words "breasts are not for saving, women are" with a black marker across Bailey's mother's chest, captured that in photos-and a new initiative was born. Their "of scars" project welcomes others to bare their scars-and their souls-to the camera.

Their first exhibit was shown on Oct. 1, 2010, timed for the beginning of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.

Although they have strong opinions about "pink washing" and corporate agendas, Bailey told the Women's Press for an October article that "This project isn't about politicizing. It's about the fact that your scars, your story, make you who you are. It's about celebrating women, as individuals and as a group."

In that article, Rader called "of scars" "a people exhibit, not a photography exhibit."

According to the article, the portraits reveal women in all their complexities, by turns defiant, vulnerable, infuriated, joyful or anguished.

"Breasts and breast cancer are a part of life," Bailey told the Women's Press. "Our culture sexualizes breasts, medicalizes breasts and fetishizes breasts, yet we feel like we can't look at this thing we're obsessed about!"

Rader said that they "try not to be provocative" but that they "don't mind pushing the envelope a little bit."


"In the first year I had trouble wrapping my head around what it even meant and how taking pictures of women and their breasts and their scars would help," Rader said. "The impact on people's lives surprised me. The project gives power-both to the people we photograph and the people looking at the photographs. It makes them feel empowered and normal and beautiful. ... Putting yourself in such a vulnerable position can give you so much power."

In addition to what is now an annual exhibit of women's scars at Bailey's Fox Egg Gallery in Minneapolis, Bailey and Rader host a monthly discussion series at the gallery for people to talk frankly about the realities of life with breast cancer. It's not a support group in the traditional sense, although they've been told participants find support.

"We just talk about things. We don't have a motive of fixing anything for anybody," Rader said. "We're not professional medical people or therapists. We're just people who start a conversation."

Topics range from how to talk about breast cancer to the impact on one's body image and sex life, vulnerability and guilt. Guest speakers have talked about pain relief through acupuncture and the controversial topic of prophylactic mastectomies (when breasts are removed as a preventive measure without a cancer diagnosis).

For Bailey, the individual experience of breast cancer was the biggest surprise.

"It was something I knew, but now it registered on an emotional level. Everybody processes the experience in such [a] unique and different way," she said. "I've learned that maybe there's no real, right way to talk about cancer. Maybe the right thing to do is just ask questions."

• Come to monthly "of scars" discussion group.
• Listen to recorded discussions as podcasts on the "of scars" website.
• Watch for information about the annual "of scars" photography exhibit.
• Connect on Facebook.
FFI: 612-656-9369 or www.ofscars.com

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