Kudos for “Under the Red Dress”

If you have a Facebook account you have likely already seen news of the project “Under the Red Dress” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/14/beth-whaanga-breast-cancer-scars-facebook_n_4775901.html) by Beth Whaanga, the young mother of four and Cancer survivor, and Nadia Masot, the photographer.

Under the Red Dress - Beth Whaanga, by Nadia Masot

“Under the Red Dress”   Beth Whaanga, by Nadia Masot

The premise of “Under the Red Dress” is two fold…first it aims to show the ravages of a Cancer diagnosis and, secondly, it encourages us, society, to be mindful that we don’t always, or even often, know what challenges another person is facing (be it Cancer, depression, divorce, abuse, etc.).

Whaanga was diagnosed on her 32 birthday with Breast Cancer.  In subsequent testing it was also discovered that she carries the BRCA2 gene, which placed her at very high risk for both Breast and Ovarian Cancers.  She then had to make the devastating decision to have preventative surgeries.

I am so impressed by Whaanga’s courage to be photographed in such an intimate and candid way.  This is the type of work that changes perceptions, it is the tearing down of facades and hushed talk.  Cancer is very real, it doesn’t discriminate striking anyone at any time, and it involves invasive and destructive (but ultimately life saving) treatments.   The honest depiction of what Cancer ‘looks like’ is seen in this series – not unlike the SCAR Project – and I believe that showing this side of the subject can only empower us, as a global society, through gained empathy and acceptance.

When interviewed, Whaanga said:

“Your scars are a physical or emotional representation of a trial you’ve been through,” Whaanga told The Huffington Post in an email. “They show that you came through the trial and survived.”

I believe in the power of a photograph.  I believe it can change how we see people/circumstances/issues and, more importantly, it can change how we feel about them.

It is reported that upon Whaanga posting her images to her Facebook page she was ‘unfriended’ by 100 people.  Criticism included that the pictures were offensive and that Facebook was the wrong venue.  I’m personally blown away that anyone could see anything other than courage, strength, and beauty in these photographs and, if they are shocking – these images of truth – well, that just means we need to see more of them…war doesn’t go away because the photojournalist is told to put her camera down.  We must, as a group, stand up and against Cancer.  We must look it straight in the eye with a fierce determination that we will do whatever it takes to save lives.

I would like to add that it is also reported that Whaanga’s images were reported to Facebook as offensive but that Facebook has written Whaanga to say they will not be removed.  I credit David Jay, of The SCAR Project, with Facebook’s much improved stance on this subject.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

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Waiting for Butterflies

I am honoured that Sharon, who was our first client, is willing to generously share a little more of her journey with us…

It was during Sharon’s treatment that journaling had been a suggested method of coping, which is how she found her outlet in poetry.  There she was: a wife, a mom to a three-year daughter and newborn son, surrogate mom to two nieces and a nephew, and in isolation for intensive chemotherapy…the days proved long and lonely; writing, she says, provided an opportunity for her to cope, to process, and to, even if only a little, unburden herself of the myriad emotions that accompany a life threatening diagnosis and its treatment.

It is our hope that by sharing this aspect of Sharon’s story, together with one of her poems from that difficult time, we might help another.  We are all different and there is obviously no one “right way” to cope; however, if you are facing your own war today, and if you haven’t tried journaling, poetry, or writing music, perhaps now you will, and perhaps it will grant you some calm within the storm.

* Please click on the image to see the larger (easier to read!) version.

Waiting for Butterflies, by Sharon Meier MacDonald

Waiting for Butterflies, by Sharon Meier MacDonald

With my sincere gratitude to Sharon for her gracious offer to share her poetry with the Bella Forza community.  It takes courage and fortitude to share our innermost thoughts, especially those written during our darkest days; Sharon, I know that this post will inspire others and we are collectively grateful.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

xo Lori

And we call her, ‘Grace’…

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The remarkable Ms. G.!

Note: Due to my client’s work it was my initial preference to only use her first initial, “G.”; however, as I typed, “G.” lacked the vibrance that IS this woman; therefore, I will call her ‘Grace’ (and, trust me, it fits)!  🙂

After a lifetime of having ‘lumps and bumps’, Grace had become a pro at doing self exams, going for semi-regular mammograms, etc., all of which afforded her the knowledge, on the morning of August 1, 2012, to know that this time something was different.  Grace told me, “I just knew.”  She called her doctor that morning, with some gentle encouragement from a coworker to not wait, and made an appointment for the same day.  The doctor was as concerned as Grace and ordered a mammogram and ultra sound, which could both be done two days later.

At Grace’s August 3rd ultra sound she was told that she would need a biopsy; which was scheduled for one week later.  That interim week was spent, as previously arranged, visiting her elderly parents with her beloved dog, Chloe.  Not knowing what the final diagnosis would be, Grace told them nothing, to spare any unnecessary worry, and returned home for the test.

The day after Grace’s biopsy Chloe had a heart attack.  Grace was told that Chloe was in congestive heart failure and would need to be euthanized.  Grace and Chloe had the weekend to spend together; cuddling, visiting loved ones, and going for walks.  On August 13th Grace had to say goodbye to Chloe and then leave the next day for a conference in the U.S., which is where she vowed to present at the April 2013 conference in Europe.  She then arrived home to news that she had Invasive Ductal Breast Cancer that may have spread to her lymph nodes.

Due to the fast growing type of tumour, it was decided that they needed to slow/stop its growth through chemotherapy prior to proceeding with surgery.  With an incredible support network, which she refers to as her ‘A-Team’, Grace met chemo head on – and it was tough.  The cocktail she was given was known to be hard-hitting, but no one could have prepared for just how hard-hitting it was.  Through it all she has had friends around her constantly; she never attended a chemo session alone, and, during the darkest hours, her friends would rally with her at her home, staying overnight, providing care and laughs, and, as she puts it, “living around her”.  Grace credits this exemplary demonstration of friendship, this “life around her”, as a primary reason she is here with us; still on the journey, but getting stronger by the day!

Grace, in B&W

Grace, in B&W

At the conference that she was at last August, Grace had vowed, both to herself and others, that she and her colleague would present important and emerging information at an international conference to be held in Europe this April.  Grace credits part of her resolve to beat Cancer to her promise made during that tumultuous time in her life last summer: when her hair fell out she would think, “I’m going to that conference”; when she had a near fatal experience on chemo she thought, “I’m going to that conference”; on those days when it was nearly impossible to get out of bed she would think, “I’m going to that conference.”  Indeed, it has been Grace’s resolve, determination, and passion that has allowed her to accomplish AMAZING things in her life (things I so wish I could share publicly here…she’s done a lot for our society!), and which served her well during this battle for her life. Grace was in Austria two weeks ago, presenting to her colleagues, just as she knew she would!

Grace in Colour

Grace, in colour

One of the very difficult things about treatment for Grace was the loss of her long, blonde hair.  She was determined at the outset that ‘her hair’ wouldn’t fall out.  But it did.  The chemo also stole her finger and toe nails.  These things are poignant for us; while you are expending every ounce of strength into your fight, you must also, simultaneously, accept dramatic and often heart wrenching differences in your appearance.  When Grace knew that her hair was in fact falling out, she, with her friend, found Compassionate Beauty, a specialized spa and resource for women undergoing cancer treatment.  Compassionate Beauty provides support, products, post mastectomy products, medical hair loss solutions, and more, and was able to help Grace with the fitting and purchase of wigs (among other services) that allowed her the opportunity to maybe not feel quite so vulnerable during a very difficult year.  Nine months later, though, Grace is on the admirable journey of embracing her ‘new me’.  She’s rockin’ a wicked, platinum pixie cut and is looking outrageously awesome in some new black frames!  Grace told me that this session came at a perfect time for her…this is a time of change, growth, acceptance, fearlessness (I dare say something I can’t imagine she’s ever not rocked!), and a new-found confidence in a new look and outlook!

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Grace, the movie star!

Grace finished her nearly 5 months of chemo in January; had a lumpectomy (now being referred to as breast conservation surgery) in February; and is currently undergoing radiation.  Her sense of humour and unwillingness to back down from the fight are the stuff of legend.

G., it was my absolute pleasure to meet you, to hear and then convey your story, and to photograph you.  I sincerely hope that you see the beauty, intelligence, life, and vibrance in these images as I see in you!

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

xoxo

Lori

Sharon

One of the hurdles for me in launching Bella Forza was the thought that I needed to have something to show people…if I’m offering a photographic product I should have photographs to show.  I know this seems so basic, but it felt a little bewildering to me; in hindsight I think it stemmed from the early fear of starting something new, of failure.

In the email I sent to my trusted circle asking for their thoughts on logo design, I had also asked if they might know of a woman who could benefit from a Bella Forza session.  I offered to provide the first three clients with the Strength Package (hair, if appropriate, and makeup by Sarah Byrne, a one hour studio portrait session, and a framed print from their session (including its digital file) at no charge in exchange for the opportunity to use their images and stories in the Bella Forza launch and marketing.

A few days later my friend, Sam Chrysanthou, said that she might know of someone.  And a  few days after that I was in touch with Sharon, who would become our honoured first client!

Sharon, to her absolute credit, was excited about the opportunity but wanted to ensure that she ‘fit’ our criteria for the initial three complimentary packages.  In an early email to me Sharon wrote,

“…I am completely well after a cancer diagnosis and treatment from hell in 2006.  My recovery occurred in 2010.  I look great now, with a full head of hair and rosy cheeks, etc…”

My reply to Sharon included,”

“…I think showing women at all phases is important and I am equal opportunity beautiful!  🙂  I think your image, together with your story (which I am anxious to hear!) will be inspirational and full of hope.  I want for Bella Forza to show women who are beautiful and strong before, during and after serious illness…I keep thinking of a vision board and, if women visiting the site are newly diagnosed, ill, going through treatment, etc, just think of how your image, story, and resilience will buoy their hopes!…”

Sharon’s Story

Sharon was guardian to her two high-needs nieces and nephew and mom to a three year old daughter when she was pregnant with her second child.  During the last month or so of pregnancy Sharon was losing weight, amongst a few other symptoms, and only two days before the birth of her son did the doctor run additional tests and subsequently diagnose her with Cancer.  After the birth of a healthy son, Sharon was able to stay in the hospital with her son while the doctors ran further tests during the evening and night-time hours.  As though the first diagnosis wasn’t shocking enough, she was soon told that they’d been mistaken and that her new (and all too correct) diagnosis was even more serious.  Sharon had Burkitt’s Lymphoma.  She explained to us that this form of blood cancer is very aggressive and its tumours double in size every 48 hours!  Sharon described an excruciating four months of in patient treatment, when her daughter was unable to visit due to the stringent ward rules that protect the immunosuppressed.  During those long days in her hospital bed; Sharon spent her time arranging for new living arrangements for her nieces and nephew, and was also able to secure a government stipend that would help the families who were stepping up to provide a new home for her loved ones.  I can’t imagine the angst of being a thirty-something woman, having a three year old, a newborn, a working husband, and three high needs children all depending on you and you are laying in a hospital bed with Cancer.  Sharon credits many with making it through that difficult time including her husband and parents.

© Bella Forza

Sharon, Taken by Lori Maloney at the Bella Forza Studio in March 2013
HMUA: Sarah Byrne

Sharon, after what she described a ‘hellish 2006 to 2010’ is now Cancer free, healthy, energetic, and full of life and optimism (I expect that she has always been of the glass half full variety!)  She spoke openly of the struggles that she and her family endured, both during her treatment and afterward.  Her passion for wanting to convey to people to take care of themselves, to know that these diagnoses can happen to young people, and that it is imperative to listen to your body is profound.

Sharon’s quiet, hopeful, and open demeanour are an inspiration and her ability to rise above difficulties is something we can all learn from.  Thank you, Sharon, not only for the trust you placed in Bella Forza by being our first client but also for provoking in us a desire to be realistic with our health and optimistic with our approach.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

Lori

A flamingo you say?!

Designing a logo for a business is both fun and daunting…you have the power to create something that really speaks to both the vision of your venture and of you, whilst also, hopefully, communicating something powerful to your clientele.  On the other hand, you have to create something that really speaks to both your vision and to you whilst communicating articulately to your clientele!  It’s like naming your child!

When I set about the early phase of logo design; I asked some people in my life if they had any ideas; these creatives and non-creatives are all people I trust and respect.  Many of the replies I received included the theme of birds.  I hadn’t thought of birds until then, but was immediately drawn to the idea.  I think birds conjure, for many of us, thoughts of freedom, beauty, and nature (and with ‘nature’ the more inclusive thought of connectedness).

I began to investigate which bird might best communicate my vision…some of the birds suggested by friends and family were perfect in many ways (the strength and stoicism of the Eagle, the beauty and fragility of the Hummingbird (which happens to be my favourite bird, so much so that I have a tattoo of one), the good tidings associated with the Blue Bird) but I wanted something different, I wanted something unique.  Enter the Flamingo.

Last fall I had begun sketching out ideas for Bella Forza, including key words that I thought defined the vision:  STRENGTH – GRACE – BEAUTY – BALANCE.  In February, while researching logo ideas with a focus on using a bird, I discovered that the flamingo symbolizes: strength, beauty, grace, and balance!  Wow, SHE WAS PERFECT!

One of my favourite colours (and stones) has always been turquoise.  In fact it is the accent colour in my studio (if you’ve seen shots of the Bella Faccia studio you may have noticed my awesome turquoise Buddha!).  Enter turquoise.

I was convinced I wanted to use turquoise in the logo but also knew it would be wise to Google it first (you can love something and think it’s lovely but if it has a different/negative connotation to others it’s good to know that upfront while you are still able to change things!)  When you Google turquoise you will find entries like: encourages inner healing; associated with flexibility, serenity, tranquility, wholeness, and openness; “you only have to focus on this colour and you will feel instant calm and gentle invigoration.”  Hooray, I could feel my ideas coalescing.  Enter Julie.

Julie Bough is a graphic designer in town, whom I found through our mutual friend (and extraordinary person & photographer), Kyla Gibson.  Julie helped me design Bella Faccia’s logo back in 2010 and I was hopeful she’d help me again.  To Julie’s credit and professionalism, I don’t think working on a logo design with a ‘creative type’ is simple, she said yes!  I have likened designing a logo to hiring someone to buy jeans for you (speaking to women on this one!): you think you want a deep wash, you think you want mid-rise, you think you want boot cut, and you think you know your size.  Well, if only logo design (and jean shopping!) were so simple…truth is that there is plenty of back and forth: I like this, I don’t love that, could we try it this way, hmmm, better go back to the other way, and on, and on, and on.  Through it all Julie was supportive, helpful, professional, and an ally in me getting to my perfect logo…

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I love everything about what Julie and I have created…and I hope that all that she, my Flamingo, represents will help communicate what Bella Forza is about.  I also hope that the fact that she is, ummm, unique, will also resonate with people – nothing wrong with a little quirkiness and levity in life, especially when you might be fighting for yours.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

Lori

Bella Forza: Celebrating Strength.Beauty.Grace.

Sometimes we need to take our time, contemplate, ponder, dream, work, concentrate, and deliberate on things…sometimes we need to just take a leap of faith.  Today, after nearly three years of deliberation, I am taking that proverbial leap.  Bella Forza is officially launched and I am officially thrilled.

This story, seemingly, begins in May of 2010 when I was readying myself for a boudoir shoot.  Part of my session preparation included a professional mani/pedi.  The esthetician that day was this super lovely Irish woman who seemed part esthetician/part philosopher/part prophet.  We spent three hours together talking and, at one point, she stopped what she was doing and while holding my hands she looked in my eyes and said, “I see you working with people who are vulnerable; not everyone can do it but YOU CAN.”  I was blown away, I can’t convey in words how incredibly powerful that moment was between us.  In hindsight, I now see that she helped germinate a seed that I believe had been present for many years prior.

Following that encounter I confided in only a few people about wanting to photograph women facing serious illness.  My mom was diagnosed in February 1995 with fourth stage Breast Cancer and we lost her in the fall of 1997; sadly we don’t have any portraits of her that truly showcase her beauty, her fortitude, or her courage. I felt as though I could offer something real, an empathy borne of first hand knowledge together with a tangible piece of evidence conveying the beauty that resides within…but I didn’t have the required self confidence just yet.

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Mom with my sister and me, c. 1974

For nearly three years I have been thinking of this path but each time I gave it serious thought I would get hung up on fear: how would something like this be received, do I charge, am I good enough, am I compassionate enough, AM I ENOUGH???

Then, in October of 2012, I met the beautiful (and talented hair and makeup artist) Sarah Byrne.  We’d been ‘Facebook friends’ for a while and finally knew that we just had to meet in person (we felt like kindred souls).  During our very first meeting I confided in Sarah about my dream to help women facing serious illness and she confided in me about having the same desire! It was magical and motivating and real!  I am so excited that Sarah has chosen to be part of the Bella Forza team!

Who we are, truly are at our core, is evident in our eyes and smiles, regardless of our current situation and, perhaps, often in spite of it.  Yousuf Karsh, an acclaimed portraitist whose body of work I greatly admire, said, “There is a brief moment when all there is in a (wo)man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, hands, and attitude.  This is the moment to record.”  I am not comparing myself to the brilliant Karsh, simply communicating my desire to be just as good.  My clients will feel both my absolute commitment to creating a beautiful portrait of and for them and also my compassion for their journey.

It is important for me to say to you that this is not a ‘pet project’ wherein women who are vulnerable will need to ‘fit my aesthetic’; rather, this is ALL about my clients and THEIR journeys.  If a woman is newly diagnosed with, say, Cancer, she may wish to have a beautiful portrait before her treatments begin and she potentially loses her hair, her breasts, or whatever is necessary to preserve her life; perhaps a woman is mid treatment and is recognizing her inner strength and wishes to have a portrait conveying that part of her journey; or, maybe a woman has stood her ground against the beast, has won, and wishes to celebrate HOPE.  All of these women are welcome in my studio and each will be met with my open heart and my continually improving skills.

Two spectacular women (whom I will introduce you to shortly!) have already had their portrait created with Bella Forza; another beautiful soul will be in studio as soon as she is recovered from her recent surgery.  These women’s stories are powerful and I am so honoured to be in a position to help share their stories, grace, and wisdom.

Since the inception of Bella Faccia I have felt as though I was pursuing my dream and passion; since my first shoot for Bella Forza I feel as though I am pursuing my heart’s path.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

With gratitude,

Lori