When I was paired with Alona Metz for Brushes with Cancer in Tel Aviv, I didn’t yet know the impact of the journey we were about to embark upon. Over our six months together, there were beautiful moments with laughter and tears, hurdles that we had to overcome and significant transformations that changed both of our lives for the better.
It was October of last year, which is breast cancer awareness month. A big part of my work is about celebrating women and their relationship with their bodies. I wanted to take the opportunity to pay tribute to women who were touched with breast cancer and share their stories through my photography.
Someone tagged ‘Alona Metz’ in a Facebook post, and I soon learned that just the day before, she had opened Thrivacious, a non-profit organization, supporting English speaking women in Israel who were touched with breast cancer. We spoke on the phone, and my heart soared hearing briefly about her story and her goals for empowering other women. Then she told me about Brushes with Cancer, a program that she was the chairing, and I wanted IN.
Brushes with Cancer is a six month program that creates unexpected intersections between artists and individuals touched with cancer. The pairs connect and form a relationship with the intention of creating a unique piece of artwork. The program culminates with a celebratory art exhibition, gala and silent auction with the proceeds benefiting Twist Out Cancer.
I was surprised yet totally and completely honored when, a week later, I was paired with Alona herself.
In Alona’s words, “My mentor and head of the program, Jenna Benn Shersher, said you need to be paired with Rebecca. She knew a lot about my story and saw this as an opportunity for me to work with someone who could help me reconnect to a body part that I felt I had lost.”
Alona was 28 years old, working as a lawyer in California when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was very shocking, and the next year of my life was kind of a blur. I went through fertility treatments and chemotherapy. I lost all of my hair. I had to have a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery…”
Going through so many emotional and physical changes during cancer often takes a toll on a person’s self-esteem and body image. “It’s been 5 years, but one physical scar I still maintain to this day are the scars on my breasts from when they were reconstructed. While objectively people might think they look good in certain ways, I couldn’t even look in the mirror. I couldn’t connect to that part of myself anymore, and I didn’t want to. It was more than just the way it looked. It was a daily reminder to me of my brush with death.
My way of coping with the trauma was to ignore and distance myself from it. That played a huge role when it came to my dating life, my sexuality and the relationship I have with my own body.”
I had photographed women touched with breast cancer in the past, and I learned so much about cancer and body image and all the fears surrounding that. Yet with those sessions, the objective was very clear. They hired me as their boudoir photographer, and I let them take the lead in terms of what they wanted out of the session. With Alona, there were a lot of different factors and there were times when I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Was this boudoir session for Alona? Was it for me? Was it for Brushes with Cancer? Was it for the person who would be buying the final piece? Was it a message to the world?
It was important to me to create a piece that was aesthetically pleasing yet honest about the struggle of reclaiming her body and sexuality after breast cancer. In general, that is where I find the most beauty, in sharing stories, even the hard ones, in an authentic way. I wanted Alona to love it, I wanted to love it, I wanted the world to see and understand it, and that was a whole bunch of pressure.
Even before it all began, we decided that we would do two sessions so that we could have a variety of photographs to choose from, and I thought that I would possibly use a combination of images to tell Alona’s story.
The first session was fun and sexy and took place in Alona’s Tel Aviv apartment. Makeup artist, Jaquelyn Mowszowski Lawrence, generously donated her time and talent. Alona said she felt like a princess. We both agreed it went really well, and we had a great time together.
It was only afterwards when all the emotions started coming out.
“Shit got real when Rebecca showed me the photos for the first time. I was like ‘OMG’ these are the photos that other people are going to see.
She sent me a montage of 5 or 6 photos, and objectively they are gorgeous, but all I was thinking was, are people going to notice the scars? Are they going to think I look normal? Will they think I look like a freak?
I was so focused on that that I started to panic. I don’t even think I saw the big picture.“
I remember Alona asked me why I felt that these photographs represented her journey, and being so excited about the images, it really hurt to hear that, and I was frustrated that I had put so much time and energy into the session, now knowing that I probably wouldn’t be using them for the final piece.
Putting the feelings and photographs from the first session aside, at least momentarily, we set up the second session, and we decided to do it in the forest.
When Alona was sick, she would go on nature walks and used nature to help her cope and heal. It seemed fitting that we would use the beauty of nature and incorporate it in the final images.
Alona said, “In the second shoot, we tried something different. We had a conversation during the shoot, and I re-told parts of my story to Rebecca.
It was a much more emotional shoot because we were actually talking about cancer and how it affected my life. But it was also really fun. I think the bond we had that day was very strong. Everything from laughing and crying together to getting bugs in our hair!
I didn’t realize how intense photography is, but Rebecca is willing to do whatever it takes to get the shot including getting covered in bugs!
Even after we left, I felt that I had meditated or something like that. Being outside in nature and being with Rebecca was a really magical experience”
I felt the same way as Alona. Looking back on that day, I feel a sense of spirituality. We were so connected to each other, ourselves and the world around us.
When I received the scans back from that magical day, I went through the photos one by one, and I stopped in my tracks when I saw this image. THE image. It was everything.
Alona had a bit of a different experience, but she says it was incredibly significant,
“When Rebecca showed me the photograph she wanted to use, I freaked out.
Firstly, it went from her wanting to use a series of photos to just this one photo. And my face wasn’t even in it, it was just my chest but covered with this beautiful almond branch. You could see my scar. I felt like it was a very artistic photograph, but again, to me, I looked like a freak. Like I was deformed or something was wrong with me.”
I tried so hard to be understanding and hold Alona’s feelings within the context of this experience, but at that point, I just couldn’t. She didn’t know it at the time, but I broke down and cried. For a long time. I was angry and frustrated, but I was also overwhelmed with self-doubt and questioned my ability to create a piece that I would be proud of for the silent auction. Once I calmed down, we spoke briefly on the phone and she explained more of her feelings, and I really did understand her.
“I just wanted there to be more to the story than, what for me, was so painful. I wanted there to be some positivity. Now I can see the positivity in that picture, but I couldn’t then.”
Alona willingly gave me permission to use the photograph for the project, as long as I chose a couple more to showcase. In the end, there were three. I thought it was brave of Alona to allow me to use a picture that was actually very painful for her to look at, at that time.
“Seeing it at the event, I saw it in a completely different way. Not only was that me, but I was proud that it was me. People were looking at it and giving amazing feedback about it.
I think it’s probably my favorite photograph now.”
THE image ended up selling (at one of the highest price points!) to a woman who was at the gala and was a breast cancer survivor as well. She said it reminded her of something in her own experience. “I think this photograph was bigger than me. It’s really amazing that Rebecca’s photo and the inspiration that came from my story, and my body, could inspire other people that didn’t actually know us.
I went through a transitional cycle of not being able to let go and be fully accepting of myself, and it’s funny because Rebecca saw me at every stage of this journey. To calling her the night before the first session and freaking out to being upset about the picture; to today when I saw all of the pictures together in a gallery. My reaction to the photos today is very different than it was 6 months ago. The journey we went through really helped me.
From this experience, I started to take this part of myself more seriously, and I can honestly say I feel better today. I feel better about the way that I look. I can connect with myself on a much more comfortable level. I can breathe again."
"Rebecca was an integral part of this journey and without her and this experience, I might not be able to look at those photos today and love them as I do. My hope is that other women have the opportunity to work with someone like Rebecca because it can open you up in a really positive way.”
Being part of this journey with Alona was an insanely beautiful blessing and gift. I think we pushed each other in ways that were uncomfortable at times, but necessary, and through it all I became a changed photographer and a changed person. I opened my boudoir business 5 years ago and had so many meaningful experiences, but this particular one gave me the ability to see how I can photograph women on an even deeper level. Alona has inspired all of my boudoir sessions that followed over the past year, and the inspiration keeps flowing. I’m grateful to have stepped into an entirely new world, with the ability to take the things I’ve learned with me and continue to help women connect with their bodies and gravitate towards self-love and acceptance.