Capturing the pain and the laughs

Photographer looks beyond the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer

Published on November 2, 2013
Sondria Browne was the first person photographed for “One Out of Nine,” a series of photos by Malin Enström of people fighting breast cancer. — Photo courtesy of Malin Enström

Malin Enström’s new solo exhibition, “One Out of Nine,” looks camera-eye directly at an illness that used to be spoken of, if at all, in whispers: breast cancer. The title references the Canadian statistics of those diagnosed with the disease, and the lens beholds a dozen women, all from Newfoundland, aged between 31 and 84, in various stages of treatment and recovery.

The idea for the photographs (19 large, black-and-white pieces, and 12 smaller, colour ones) began with Sondria Browne. After her diagnosis, and amidst her treatment, she contacted Enström to have her portrait done.

“She wanted to document that stage in her life,” Enström said. “The way her body looked at that particular moment — she had just started chemotherapy.”

“I asked Malin to come over,” said Browne. “I don’t think I realized what I asked her to do. I started to cry.” All the same, “it was very casual the day she took my pictures.” For example, her jewelry of ring, watch and bracelets is just what she normally wore. “I did paint on some eyebrows. I did think about that.”

Browne posted the photos on her blog, “The Rising,” “and got amazing feedback,” Enström said. “Sarah Smellie did a piece for The Telegram and mentioned we were looking for more.”

And these women answered that call.


“I think they want to remember this stage of their life,” Enström said. “The pain and the laughs. How their body changed and is still changing. They are all at different stages of treatment. Some have undergone mastectomies. Some have had reconstructive surgery.”

They are very open with their bodies, and what breast cancer has done to it.

“Yet many of them are very private,” Enström said. “For some, I was the first person who saw the scars. They wanted to, not redefine, but talk about beauty. Some of them don’t want to do reconstruction.”

The exhibition is about the physical attrition of cancer that can sometimes be screened by the success of the pink ribbon campaign, Browne said, stressing that such fundraising work is still vital — it just doesn’t always depict “the strength it takes to move on. And to show the stories and that every one of them is different.”

For example, the age range of these portraits.

 “It just happened,” Enström said. “And it closed the circle: breast cancer has no limits, it affects all ages and all walks of life. There is no common theme.”

The women were photographed in a spot they chose: Beachy Cove; a foggy Ferryland; Cape Spear; Signal Hill. “A lot of backyards,” Enström said. “A lot of their homes.”

“They are organic and real,” said Browne. “Lots of natural light.”

Enström’s process was open-ended, too. “The first time we met, we talked. I did a little interview. They get to tell their story so I’m not a stranger. They get to decide where we go. I tell them to wear something they’ll be comfortable in that lets them be themselves.”

Each session took a couple of hours, and each model made the choice to reveal as much as they want to; Enström was always sensitive to their level of comfort.

And the different film media are significant, Enström said. The black and white photos are there because “I wanted to declutter, and have the focus be what it looks like, how raw it is, the scars. The colour photos show effects that don’t show up on the black and white, like radiation burns. They won’t go away. It’s not pretty. It’s a hard process, and I wanted to show the pain, even though many of them have wonderful smiles.”

Indeed, Browne said, “It was a great experience. I’m happy I did it.” Although in her photos it might look like she is crying, actually “my eyes were watering from the chemotherapy. Constantly. I was trying to get the tears out of the way so she could take the shot.”

”We see the pink ribbon,” said Enström. “I wanted to filter that. You all have your stories, your scars.”

"One Out of Nine" continues at the Leyton Gallery until Nov. 10.


This is a corrected version