Catharsis or Catalyst?

2a : purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art b : a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension.
3: elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression.

For a person with surgical or mental scars, can posing for a photographic portrait be a cathartic experience OR could it be a catalyst to a whole new outlook on life?
When I was 33, I was physically attacked – broken nose and cheekbone, scarring to the inside of my mouth – no loss of teeth thankfully. I remember being photographed for the Criminal Injuries Compensation claim and how the experience helped me to get a grip on what had  happened. I never knew the attacker, who came at me from behind and I was knocked out so I couldn’t remember what he looked like. I asked a friend to shoot some frames on an old roll of film using my medium format camera. I never had those shots processed but kept the roll at the bottom of the drawer, only to chuck it away when I was done with the whole ordeal. It really helped draw a line under it.
This week, I’m broaching a sensitive subject. I was recently asked to photograph an incredible woman: a woman who was brought back from the brink twice whilst on the surgeon’s table.
In 2009, Susan was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She underwent 4 procedures including biopsies through the belly button and exploratory sessions culminating in a dramatic, invasive op to remove 90% of her stomach, a 12 hour ordeal. During this time, 48 infected lymph nodes were removed and she underwent 10 months of chemo before and after.
By way of a gift to her self and her partner, Susan (56 years) decided to face her demons head on by posing nude for a photographic portrait. Now, in my view, any person willing to expose themselves (mentally and physically) to a stranger for the sake of recording her life state is very brave.
Like any shoot involving people, it takes a little time for them to get into it, so the first few frames are usually trashed. Plus, it takes me a while to work out that person’s attributes. With slim Sue, it was clear she had wonderfully long legs and we should make the most of them. The surgery had caused dramatic weight loss for obvious reasons. Sue plummeted from dress size 18-20 down to dress size 8, a mere 8.5 stone (53.4kg fyi) and so major areas of concern to her were under arms, tops of thighs and breasts which appeared deflated in her view. Personally, they looked fine to me but what do I know? Although awaiting reconstructive implants, I was in admiration of Susan’s desire to record her body before the op.
For three hours we worked together trying different angles , shooting in small bursts and reassessing each time. We tried different articles of clothing , from a tight, white satin nightie, through completely nude to a piece of see-through damask from the Monday Market. We settled on this although it caused us a few styling headaches which we overcame with a plethora of bulldog clips and pins.
Painted all white, this studio space was perfect. I figured a strong rim-light would enhance the contours of her body and the fabric, showing the translucent quality of it and maintaining a modicum of  decency, silhouetting her figure.
I placed two monoblocs on minimum power on either side of the canvas backdrop and pointed them directly at the corners of the room. Both had honeycomb grids on to reduce the overall power of the lights. (I’m always struggling to reduce the power of my old Elinchroms these days.) The room being white also acted as a giant reflector meaning I didn’t need to use any front fill. This also had the effect of a soft light on her face which flattered her features. We agreed there was no budget for  retouching  (Sue isn’t the kind of person to want it either) but her pupils being very dark brown, I added two catch-lights in her eyes afterwards to add a little sparkle.
Settling on two final pictures, she expressed a desire for black and white, but as I felt straight would feel too cold, I processed the RAWs adding a little sepia effect emulating those beautiful fibre based Oriental Seagull papers I used to use at Melvin’s lab.
After we had finished, I asked her if the experience had helped. Periodically throughout , when revising the the shots, she said things like : “Look at that saggy…..blah, blah” or ” I don’t like the way my breast looks here.” But she agreed that the process of editing had been a very useful way of revisiting areas of her body that she perceived were a problem for her. She explained she was now able to see herself more objectively. I was delighted to  have found a way to help her using my metier, which can seem vacuous when you think about modern society’s obsession with the traditional beauty of ‘the perfect size 10.’
But hats off to Sue, who took a harrowing ordeal and committed it to paper for all to see.
An agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.
The most knowledgeable black and white hand printer I know.
To Sue, who gave me kind permission to write this entry and  publish her photographs unaltered.

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