Tender portraits of women surviving breast cancer capture resilience in the face of stigma

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Sergei Stroitelev’s ongoing series challenges the perception of shame felt by Russian women fighting the effects of the unforgiving disease

In Russia, when women receive the diagnosis for breast cancer, they are faced with two difficult decisions: which treatment to pursue, and whom, if anyone, to tell about it. Their feeling of shame and silence is entwined with the disease; an emotional burden that women in the west rarely face. “There is a lot of discrimination, not only in healthcare, but in Russian society at large,” explains the Saint Petersburg-based photographer, Sergei Stroitelev. “People think of cancer, breast cancer, and particularly mastectomies, as taboos. They think that if a woman has scars, she should hide them and keep silent. And if a man accepts her like this, she should be grateful. It’s unacceptable.”

From the series, Am I Not Scared Anymore © Sergei Stroitelev.

A chance encounter photographing oncologist Dr Anna Kim, alongside a friend’s painful personal experience with breast cancer, drove Stroitelev’s desire to dismantle the prevailing perceptions felt by Russian women. The result is his ongoing series, Am I Not Scared Anymore?. “One of my close friends was diagnosed. She was a very optimistic, open person until after her operation. Her mental state changed, she could not accept herself or look in the mirror anymore,” he says. “I was terrified and asked Anna for advice. She suggested I help using my photography to support not only my friend but others too. I did, and it worked. Eventually I could see a smile return to my friend’s face.”

Stroitelev began his series in 2018, and has photographed 20 women to date. The images are intimate and raw, as light floods every frame – a stylistic choice paying testament to strength, defiance and vulnerability. “For these women, [the process] was difficult psychologically,” he says, describing their experience of being photographed. “If this was my first project, I couldn’t have done it. Understanding the ethics and building trust in the beginning was crucial.” 

From the series, Am I Not Scared Anymore © Sergei Stroitelev.
From the series, Am I Not Scared Anymore © Sergei Stroitelev.

In varying states of undress, the women reveal themselves. Most had never shared their mastectomy scars so openly before. Stroitelev recounts their difficult stories, particularly the struggles navigated post-surgery, and heartbreaking reactions of those close to them. He speaks tenderly of Katya, who took her wig off for the first time in front of his lens. “Her co-workers don’t even know she has cancer,” he explains. Then there’s Natalia, who had a double mastectomy. “She told me she could only undress publicly for the first time in a swimming pool in Berlin. It was the first time nobody stared at her. She couldn’t do this in Russia. Two women were left by their husbands after their diagnosis. They were cheated on, mistreated, abused. This is not what you expect from your family you love in this very challenging moment of your life, but it happens to thousands of women in Russia. It is common and shocking.”

“A woman’s body is beautiful in any condition, scars or no scars. We need to demolish harmful stereotypes and accept people for who they are.”

Still life images representing the dreams of those Stroitelev photographed during their treatment also appear in Am I Not Scared Anymore?. “It was a privilege that these women allowed me to tell their stories and dreams. I didn’t want the work to be visually painful – the images are a celebration of every woman, in memoriam of those who have died, and the many other women lost to the disease.” The series is almost ethereal, a compelling document of hope and loss, confronting stigma in the hope of changing attitudes and to allow for a reclamation of agency for those affected by cancer. “A woman’s body is beautiful in any condition, scars or no scars,” says Stroitelev. “We need to demolish harmful stereotypes and accept people for who they are.”

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.