Why this photographer keeps turning her lens on post-mastectomy breast cancer survivors and thrivers
It was a random portrait session, early in her career, that led photographer Charise Isis to launch her ongoing Grace Project — for which she takes topless, goddess-like pictures of breast cancer survivors or thrivers (whose cancer is metastatic) who have undergone mastectomies.
“I used to do a lot of boudoir photography, and a local newspaper did a story about my work for Valentine’s Day,” Isis tells Yahoo Life, explaining that, not long after, a man called to book a gift shoot for his wife, as he’d been inspired by the clients in the article saying they’d felt “empowered and beautiful” while posing for Isis.
On the day of the appointment, she greeted a stylish woman who insisted on staying covered up. “I have a confession to make," the woman eventually said. "I’m a 12-year breast cancer survivor, and I feel mutilated on one side of my body.” She'd had a unilateral mastectomy. And her husband, she said, “wanted me to feel the way those women felt when they left your studio.”
And soon, Isis recalls, she did.
“She started slowly revealing her breast but covering the mastectomy side … and then, all of a sudden, she just throws off her shirt and goes, ‘F*** it, I’m doing this for myself.’ I had goosebumps. I had just watched a woman let go of 12 years of shame in one moment,” she says. “It was incredibly cathartic and powerful — not just for her, but for me.”
Since that day in 2009, Isis has seen it happen again and again — 720 times, to be exact, as she’s neared her goal to make 800 Grace Project portraits, representing the approximate number of new breast cancer diagnoses every day in the U.S.
Through the women (and occasional men) she photographs, Isis hopes to add context, through an empathic and realistic lens, to misinformed ideas people may have about mastectomies.
Because after that first shoot, she recalls, “I started looking online to see what’s out there, and all I could find were gruesome doctors’ photos in bad medical lighting, just the torso, with no humanity to it.” So, she says, “I decided I’d start to put a face to breast cancer.”
The Grace Project: What it is and who it's for
Isis's subjects are vastly diverse — by race, age, body size and surgeries, as she’s snapped images of women who have had one breast removed or both, and who have opted for reconstruction or to remain flat.
“I think it’s important to show all kinds of chests, all kinds of scars, all different results,” says Isis. “I’ve seen some reconstructions that are beautiful and I’ve seen some that are badly done. I’ve also seen some where the body rejects the implants, so there’s a lot more scarring,” she says. “But I feel it’s important to … understand all the possibilities you could end up with — and know that whatever it is, you’re not going to feel so alone, because you’re seeing the honest truth.”
She adds, “Seeing women standing in their power and truth and beauty, regardless of what their result is, you see their vulnerability and humanity. I think that gives other people strength.”
That was certainly the case for Jeanne Jones, who posed for Isis in 2021, several years after she was diagnosed with stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer, undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy without reconstruction.
“It made me feel completely beautiful. If I could walk on clouds, I would,” Jones, 52, tells Yahoo Life of that day she gathered with other survivors to pose for Isis, one by one, in a park in Maryland after the photographer put out word to those who had expressed interest that she’d be coming through their state.
Jones showed up that day with her own piece of bright green silk to be draped in, along with some fun accessories. “I had this big afro and put on some big earrings — I just decided to adorn myself with things that made me feel beautiful,” she says.
“I felt seen, I felt loved, I was crying — because for that moment in time, I was around so many kindred spirits who got it. And we fought to be there,” she says. “It was very thoughtful. And I feel like the confidence I have now is, like, through the roof as a result of that experience.”
Jess Donatelli, 45, had a similar experience posing for Isis in late August, about a year after receiving her diagnosis and having a double mastectomy with no reconstruction. She found her way to Isis through flat-support groups on Facebook.
“When I learned of Charise, I thought, what an extraordinary thing to do … and what an amazing thing it would be to participate in this project, because without saying a word I can bring so much awareness to this advocacy work,” she tells Yahoo Life. But in addition to still adjusting to her flat chest, she’d battled severe psoriasis for most of her life, and had always gone to great lengths to cover herself up as much as possible. So, she says, “At the same time, I was terrified … When you live your whole life concealing your body, it’s ingrained in fabric of your being.”
But she quickly came to a realization: “None of that matters. This is so much more powerful, and I felt this overwhelming drive to do it, so I just contacted her.” Donatelli, who lives not far from Isis in upstate New York, posed in the photographer's backyard.
“It was amazing. It was, like, otherworldly — like I was transported somewhere else,” she says of the experience. “I was fully in the moment with her. She is extraordinarily patient and compassionate and she sees you, and whatever you’re feeling, she manages to bring it out of you.” And the results have been “transformative,” particularly in the way she views her body. “It’s changed me so much,” she says.
Setting the stage
To create the images, Isis has her subjects pose outside draped in provided flowing fabrics, aiming to conjure the Venus de Milo statue in all her broken glory.
“Some women have an incredibly transformative experience, but it’s always very positive, and moving towards trying to heal,” Isis says of the varying responses. “One woman said it was so important because she’d seen my photos prior to her diagnosis and pored over them and made her decision about her mastectomy, with flat closure, as a result of looking at my pictures.” Isis gets letters from women all over the world, she adds, saying they had felt alone until finding the photos online.
In some rare instances, she has photographed mothers who have their children in the frame, creating striking, often dichotomous portraits. “It’s important for people to see, because breasts are such a symbol of motherhood… I think it’s important for the public to see that these are real moms, especially when the moms are metastatic,” she says, “hoping you’ll get enough years to watch your kid grow.”
But no matter what the situation, the photoshoots with her “goddesses” are always an intimate experience. “I work to really connect with them,” she says, explaining she shot 76 people recently at a special “flattie” gathering in Grand Mesa, Colo., over the course of a weekend for International Flat Day on Oct. 7. “I can’t tell you how much snot and tears wound up on my shoulder by the end… They’re really being vulnerable with me… And I really love my subjects.”
As she nears her total of 800 portraits, Isis hoping to build upon past exhibits by finding a space large enough to show every single portrait at once, each printed onto massive silk panels. But she’s also been both expanding the project and narrowing her lens, most recently focusing on military woman and vets who have been impacted by breast cancer.
And she doesn’t plan to switch topics once the goal is reached.
“I feel like the Grace Project is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, and I feel like my self-esteem has soared as a result of doing this project,” Isis says. Not to mention that spending time with so many women who have been affected by breast cancer, “especially the metastatic women, who are experiencing thoughts about their own mortality,” she says, “has made me less afraid of dying.”
Isis adds, “For the rest of my life, I never want to do photography work that’s not making a difference in the world.”
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