The photos Charise Isis captured of patients living with breast cancer at the Marie Coffin Gardens in Wilmington, Delaware, look different from what is often the norm: clinical, taken in harsh lighting, and with models cropped out above the neck.
Inspired by the Venus De Milo, Isis wraps her models in fabric, poses them like Greek statues, and highlights their surgical scars. She says she wants to put a face to breast cancer and imbue it with some of the courage and grace she sees from her models.
The 24 models — men and women from age 28 to 68 — are all part of the local breast cancer peer support group In This Together Philly Wilmington and from throughout the tri-state area. Each had a 20-minute, individual photo shoot where Isis aimed to transform them into gods and goddesses.
“We’re all imperfectly perfect. I like to think that broken is still beautiful,” Isis said. “Our scars are beautiful. They’re like the map of our lives, like the things that have been written on our body that we have needed to do in order to survive.”
Isis is working to create 800 such portraits for The Grace Project — one for every breast cancer diagnosis the United States records each day. Her stop in Wilmington on July 22 kicks off a national road trip to add about 100 photos to her collection.
One of the models, Elle Shaeffer, a retired first-grade teacher from Newark, Delaware, says the photo shoot is more than just a few pictures. It’s part of the healing process.
Shaeffer was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2019 and underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy, and a breast reconstruction surgery. But after several years of pain, swelling, and another reconstructive surgery, Schaeffer had her implants removed just three weeks before her photo shoot with Isis.
She says doing the photo shoot after “going flat,” or having her implants removed, feels like the last hump on a three-year journey of learning to accept her body.
“The stars aligned and I was like, this is what I need to help me transform into this goddess,” Shaeffer said. “So I feel like, despite my nervousness about it, it will just be so transformative, that I will be able to just be at another level of healing.”
Isis has captured over 400 portraits so far. Ultimately, she hopes to print all 800 portraits on silk banners and display them in a single exhibition to highlight the daily impact of breast cancer in the U.S.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!