Having a picture taken of myself, at any time, is not ideal! Having a picture taken of myself, four months after major surgery, in a perfect strangers home, half naked, seemed insane! However, whilst lying in bed recovering from my mastectomy and reconstruction, I decided that it might be fun to nip any self conscious or inadequate feelings of self image, in the bud, as soon as possible and book a boudoir photography session with a friend of a friend. Clearly, the drugs had affected me more than I realised!
I had heard of Gemma's boudoir photography for breast cancer patients on Facebook and through a friend. She kindly forwarded me her details and while taking a break from back to back episodes of The Good Wife on Netflix while convalescing, I sent her a message explaining my situation. Gemma's reply was sensitive, positive and full of encouragement so I thought, what better way of treating myself, than a day trip to her Salisbury home and studio, a make over and a few glamorous pics of me to stash away and giggle over with friends! What the hell?
Gemma is herself a breast cancer survivor. She fell into photography once she had sold her and her husbands web development company following the birth of her second child and she realised she needed something more flexible.
‘Building relationships with the ladies and families I photograph is at the core of what makes my job so fulfilling, and knowing that I’m providing them with memories that will last a lifetime gives me a great sense of satisfaction’.
- Gemma Brunton
Excitement soon turned to full on fear and a few days beforehand I was having serious second thoughts! I emailed Gemma in a flap asking if we could perhaps lean more on the side of cosy knitwear than lingerie since that was slightly more 'me'! Plus, I had way more chunky cardigans and knitted jumpers than I did neglige's and high heels! Once again, her reply was so reassuring and she put me at ease straight away, telling me it would not be rushed and we wouldn't do anything I didn't feel comfortable with. I am not sure she knew how comfortable I would be with just a cup of tea and a chat!
It was pouring with rain that day but I drove down to Salisbury and after a few three point turns in various neighbouring driveways, I found my way to Gemma’s beautiful farmhouse. It was a stunning set up and as I threw a coat over my head and ran for the door of the barn outside, where she has set up her studio, I rather fancied myself as some model turning up for a Vogue shoot!!!
Gemma offers this service to breast cancer patients for free. I had to pay for the make up artist who was already there, but she quickly set to work (we needed a lot of time!) and magically transformed me into a natural, glowing woman I frankly didn't recognise! Gemma and I then went through the wardrobe selection, mine and hers! Again, I twittered on about my preference for cosy and safe rather than seducing and sexy but Gemma managed to pull a couple of bits out (between the feather bowers and silk all in ones, I was having a hard time calming the nerves!) but again, she reassured me she would guide me through it step by step. We were going to do the shoot with some of the rooms in her house as a backdrop so, after she had decided on a few garments, we crossed over to her back door and went into the sitting room.
Gemma's house is beautiful and very homely so looking around their cosy family room, I immediately had a sense of calm. In here, we did a set up on the sofa with me, well, pretty much naked, expect for a pair of pants, and my favourite electric blue poncho! As I sat on the arm of the sofa, staring out of the window, trying my hardest to look demure and sexy, (rather than scared stiff and frowning because I kept slipping down the fur throw that was draped so beautifully on the arm of the sofa!) I listened to Gemma’s instructions and did my best to follow. It was not easy, that kind of 'look' is certainly not natural for me, but she was great at making me laugh so I just kept to the ‘natural’ script as best I could, whilst trying not to crack up!
As the goose bumps began to take control, we moved upstairs to one of the bedrooms which looked like something out of a Laura Ashley catalogue. It was all very neutral and classically done. With a sigh of relief I was allowed to put my favourite grey cardigan on, as well as my very comfy knitted socks. These items had real meaning for me since I had lived in them during my convalescing and I loved the idea of being able to use them in a more glamorous way now. Gemma asked me to sit on the large windowsill and look out the window. This was more like it! I started feeling a lot more natural and Gemma and I chatted as the camera snapped away, without my even noticing!
Knowing Gemma had been through breast cancer too and knew the anxieties and insecurities that an illness and the side effects of that, can bring, made me feel so much more at ease. As we nattered away from that rainy windowsill, I asked Gemma why she thought this boudoir style photography might help people after breast cancer.
‘I realised that I could put my photography skills to good use by offering boudoir-style portrait sessions to ladies going through a similar tough time with how their treatment has robbed them of feeling feminine and desirable, with the hope that it would help them see themselves in a different light. The emotional healing is something that I feel often gets overlooked, and hopefully what I do helps in some small way.’
- Gemma Brunton
To stop me getting too comfortable, we moved into a room next door and this time Gemma pushed me way out of my 'comfort zone', by putting me in my see through black evening top! Eek! I was only used to wearing this with a pair of jeans and a black vest underneath! She was going for a silhouette shape and asked me to stand in front of the window to get the best light. Once we had manipulated my arm into what felt like a rather unnatural position, Gemma squealed with delight! Clearly I was doing something right and a bit of professional lighting does wonders!
Just as I thought we were done, Gemma went in for the kill and asked me if I would like to go topless. This was a big deal! Jordan I most certainly was not, but since we had got this far and I had begun to trust her implicitly, I thought it was now or never. Thinking of everything I had been through previously, this was a moment to go for all guns blazing. I asked myself honestly, when would I be brave enough to do this again?
Gemma lay me on the bed and positioned me so the photos would be modest and tasteful. As weird and vulnerable as I did feel on the one hand, I also felt strangely brave and proud. I would never have done this had it not been for being unwell. The scars tell a story and when photographed like this, I knew I would treasure their meaning so much more than when staring at them in the mirror in my own bathroom, automatically seeing them as imperfections! I didn't want to glorify it or make it sound like an excuse, but I was finally seeing some sort of positive to it all. I realised that something like this gave me something to see, something to hold in my hand and concrete proof that I was OK and I could look pretty OK too (with a little help!)
Gemma is one amazing lady. Aside from portrait photography she works for a couple of charities too and was recently asked by her local district hospital to help raise funds for a dedicated breast cancer unit.
‘I had the opportunity to photograph a Firefighter’s calendar last year, which was masses of fun and also raised lots of money towards the project – and I just heard to today that they’ve reached their target and building will commence soon – I’m so happy to have been a part of that (and lets be honest, there are worse subjects I could have been asked to photograph!)’
- Gemma Brunton
Knowing her wealth of experience working with other women, as well as being another survivor, helped me relax so much and more importantly, enjoy myself. This was my time, something for me, by me.
As I sat, stood, lay and was literally draped around Gemma’s furniture and gorgeous home, I smiled. Who would have thought that breast cancer would have made me do something as mad as this? Who would have thought how much I would have got out of it too?! Not just photos to give me a confidence boost when I needed one and have to show my daughter how proud we should be of our femininity, no matter what, but a new friend and a space to shine. Now thats something special and a pretty positive picture of recovery x
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Over the course of all my cancer experiences I kept a diary. These are the blogs I have written from the thoughts and feelings I recorded there. xx