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Open image in new window by Charlee Brodsky
Stephanie Byram was my friend. She died of breast cancer at age thirty-eight on June 9, 2001. She lived eight years after the disease was discovered.
With her cancer diagnosis at age thirty, Stephanie’s life changed. She became more known to others than she would have otherwise. She always had a close circle of friends who were drawn to her because of her candor, her intellect, her impish humor, her steadiness, her sensitivity. But after her diagnosis, many more people knew of Stephanie Byram because of her willingness to share. Stephanie went public with breast cancer.
Stephanie called the work that we produced our “art project.” The work consisted of my photographs and her words, and it took many forms. We exhibited in galleries; published pieces in newspapers, magazines, and journals; produced a thirty-minute video with filmmaker Mary Rawson; and the Univeristy of Pittsburgh published the work as a book. The project garnered recognition and many awards.
Two weeks before hearing her diagnosis and dire prognosis, Stephanie and two other women graduate students won a campus triathlon. Stephanie was a fine athlete. For this event, she ran, another student swam, and another biked to their victory. After this happy experience, she went to a doctor to inquire about the pea-like bumps she felt under her arm. The doctor quickly scheduled a mammogram and a biopsy. Within two weeks of that triathlon win, Stephanie had her breasts removed.
Because Stephanie was open about her life, many people at Carnegie Mellon—where she was a graduate student and where I taught—knew about her illness and our project. We were invited to present our work to a number of classes. Our first presentation was to a colleague’s freshmen seminar. As we showed the photographs, the class went silent. We had forgotten what it was to be nineteen and a thin-skinned freshman. Most of those fifteen or so freshmen had not yet dealt directly with mortality.
After learning my story, many people glance at my chest almost despite themselves, making me feel embarrassed and ashamed. Then we did the “Venus” photo. Like a Michelangelo sculpture with the arms knocked off, I now see my torso as a work of art. Although I’m missing some pieces, I no longer feel disfigured. This image was a turning point for me (Brodsky and Byram 2003, 26).
Why is it that I never see anyone without hair? Why is it that my doctor insisted I would want to “reconstruct” my breasts? Is it so important to hide our appearance, to hide our cancers? Why should I feel ashamed? Is it so important to conform, to avert the stares and whispers? (Brodsky and Byram 2003, 86–87).
Stephanie writes: “When told they have a life-threatening illness, some people withdraw into themselves. I, on the other hand, seek connections outside of myself, both physically and spiritually. … Without each other, our bodies and souls wither and die” (Brodsky and Byram 2003, 46).
One of our friends, an older woman who was a breast cancer survivor and a professor emeritus of English, told me that Stephanie wasn’t supposed to die. Many of us felt as though we were watching the story of Stephanie’s life unfold and that the author got the ending wrong. At every turn when a new test was taken and results were back, the news was always remarkably bad. We learned that Stephanie’s cancer was virulent and that the probability of surviving beyond five years was slim. Through many years of her life with cancer, we believed that Stepanie was too full of life to die, and if sheer determination mattered, she would beat the odds. But she, a scientist, was a realist.
From the large body of work that we produced, this image was one of my favorites. For me it is about human closeness. Skin on skin. Two beings becoming one. In actuality, the back story had a soap-opera plot. The man in the image is one of Stephanie’s former lovers. He agreed to be photographed with her for our project, as did many of Stephanie’s friends. She had a way with those in her life, and they valued closeness with her. Even with former lovers, Stephanie’s relationships were lasting. When this photograph was made, this man was now with another woman. Stephanie received an irate phone call from this woman who forbid us to use the photographs and demanded the negatives. Stephanie and I talked about this moral quandary. The boyfriend willingly posed. As far as we were concerned, our relationship was with him, not her. We recognized that there were “ownership” issues between them that we didn’t understand, but, ultimately, we believed that he and she needed to work some things out that did not involve us. We continued to use the photographs in print and in exhibition.
As a corollary to this story, an interesting question arises: who owns our work? Is it Stephanie’s? Is it mine? Our working relationship was smooth, but there were times that we needed to mediate differing opinions. There were photographs that Stephanie liked more than I did, and those that I felt strongly about that she did not. Those discussions strengthened our relationship and the project. They brought us deeper into conversations and into the story that we were telling. Although the work is about Stephanie’s life, there were two of us telling the story with different skill sets. I believe our voices merged well into one.
The last time I was with Stephanie was at her home, the day that she died. Later a friend asked if I had thought about photographing Stephanie while she was dying. I needed time to think of my reply, to form it into words, and to make it understandable to myself and to my friend. I did see photographs then, as I often “see” photographs when my eyes are open. But I never thought of bringing out my camera. Stephanie and I had always decided together when, where, and how to make our photographs—but while she was dying, she could not let me know what she wanted. Stephanie had been my subject but she was also my collaborator. In this our last experience together, I took her silence to be an invitation to put my camera aside and to be present with her. I’m glad that there wasn’t a camera between us then. My last day with Stephanie is with me and is more real than the photographs that I made of her. Even though photographs are more tangible, memories that we hold in our minds are etched deeply. Not from a photograph, but from within my being, I see her skin, close up, lightly freckled, with her hair cropped close to her head, an appealing shade of brown and gray, in a perfect shape around the curve of her ears. I don’t know if Stephanie would have wanted me to photograph her that day. I made the decision not to on my own.