Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times. In this article, Well reporter Roni Caryn Rabin reflects on why the women whom she and photographer Béatrice de Géa featured in a recent story about “going flat” after mastectomies were surprisingly eager to reveal themselves to the world.
The day after arranging a recent photo shoot, I got one of those emails that reporters dread. The woman who was photographed said she needed to speak with me. Could I call her? It was urgent.
Uh-oh, I thought. Was she getting cold feet? Was she backing out of the story, or having second thoughts about the photos?
One of the toughest challenges of being a medical reporter is persuading a patient to speak openly about a health issue. In this case, the topic was deeply personal. I was writing about women who had decided against breast reconstruction after mastectomies. They call it “going flat,” and I decided to pursue the story after seeing a video on Facebook in which two women bare their flat chests and scars after breast cancer.
What was remarkable about the reporting for this story was that every woman I interviewed was surprisingly frank about living life without breasts. Each spoke openly about how the decision changed her personally and how it had affected her most intimate relationships. Not one woman asked me to withhold her name or use only her first name, which was fortunate. Although The Times in some cases will allow a person to remain anonymous to preserve medical privacy, we do our best to avoid using anonymous sources.
But we needed photographs. Having seen a video featuring some of these women topless and showing their scars, I knew how powerful the images might be. But without a compelling reason, The Times typically would not publish a photo of a woman with a bare chest. And most women don’t want their chests photographed, fully clothed or otherwise.
I thought that I would be lucky to find one or two women to pose for us and that it would require all the cajoling skills I could muster, but every woman I approached agreed immediately. There were no preconditions set on the portraits. The photographer, Béatrice de Géa, collaborated with each woman and allowed her to set the terms of the photo.
Ms. de Géa photographed six women, and five of them wanted to be photographed topless to show their scars. One woman asked to be photographed fully clothed, wearing a long-sleeved shirt that concealed her flat chest. Interestingly, she is the one woman we photographed who later changed her mind and asked that her photo not be used. (We did not use it.)
And what about the woman who sent me the urgent email after the photo shoot? Her name is Rebecca Pine, and she was not calling to back out. But she was understandably apprehensive, and she wanted to make sure the images weren’t going to be used to shock or sensationalize.
The photographs were stunning, but they also triggered a discussion within The Times. After consulting with the standards editor, Phil Corbett, and other top editors at the paper, the consensus was that the photos were respectful to the women involved and essential to telling a complete story. Thankfully our readers seemed to agree. In close to 1,000 comments posted on the story, nearly every reader applauded the photos and the women who posed for them. A small fraction of the comments were from people who thought the photos were inappropriate.
Personally, I was relieved about the outpouring of support for these women from Times readers. After the photographs were published, I checked back with them to see how they were feeling about the decision to be photographed. (None of the women had seen the photos before they were published.)
In the photo that led the story, Ms. Pine stood in front of a fan that blew her curly hair away from her face. Two tattoos, a dragonfly and a flower, are visible where her breasts once were. But what is most striking about the photo is not her bare chest but the look of strength and defiance on her face.
“We all have scars of one kind or another, visible or not,” says Ms. Pine, 40, of Long Island, who has used photography and writing to come to terms with cancer. “This is who I am now, physically. The world needs to know that not all women have the same silhouette. Not everybody has two breasts. Some people have one. Some don’t have any.”
Surprisingly, Ms. Pine insists that she is shy and that being photographed was difficult for her. “I have always had a strong need to connect with others,” she says. “I think it gives people a lot of hope to see someone who has been through it all and is thriving. We all have a feeling of needing to be seen and heard, and to share our stories.”
Marianne DuQuette Cuozzo, 51, an artist from Long Island, says she was determined from the start to pose shirtless for the Times photographer: “The whole point of this is to be seen.”
At the same time, Ms. Cuozzo admits she has struggled to come to terms with the new shape of her body. During the photo shoot, she helped the photographer tie black string around her arms and torso to symbolize the surgical stitches that have altered her body. She thinks the resulting photograph captures her feeling of triumph and freedom as the threads were snipped.
“This is what we now look like from cancer,” she says. “This is what happens. I loved my breasts. Now I’m finding new parts of my body to love. I want to feel beautiful and sexy again, but it will take some time. The photos made me feel powerful. Every woman should have a photo shoot.”
Charlie Scheel, of Brooklyn, posed wearing only a tie. Since having a double mastectomy, the 48–year-old from Brooklyn has embraced a new identity as gender-queer. Charlie now wears a shirt and tie to work, and says stripping off the shirt for the photo shoot was empowering: “This was about taking back ownership of my body, and letting go of shame. All my friends struggle with one part of their body or another. But I’m O.K. with it. My body is my body. I want to empower other women to own their bodies.”