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Editorial

“Aftermath: Photos as Catharsis”

by Jean Schiffman

Photographer Kerry Mansfield documents her painful journey through cancer treatment.

When San Francisco photographer Kerry Mansfield was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at 31, she immediately looked for photos of other women with breast cancer so she could see what she was up against.

“All I could find were glorious black and white pictures of bald women looking regal,” she says. “I was like, where’s the bad part? Where’s the suffering, the pain, the agony?” She needed those images, to prepare for the ordeal ahead. So she decided, “OK, I’m going to take the ugly ones.”

With a degree in photography from U.C. Berkeley and national and international awards for her work, Mansfield has exhibited in galleries throughout the United States, Europe and South America—but her focus has been still lifes, not people.

She didn’t intend to share the “ugly ones.” She loved her breasts, and her long, thick, curly blonde hair (“I was a little vain,” she admits) and simply wanted to document—“to show my sister’s grandkids”—what she had lost. And, being a driven and hyper-detail-oriented artist, she wanted the images to be as precise and artistic as possible. Mansfield was inspired by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, who took photos of herself after a bicycle accident. Opting for flat, frontal lighting, Mansfield knew she’d want consistency—“I wanted to take them all in the same place to create a sense of time passing without distraction, a time lapse,” she explains. So she posed in her bathtub/shower, against the blue tile wall, putting Sharpie marks on the floor for the tripod and using a cable release to shoot.

Then she commenced to take photographs, roughly every two weeks, after each round of chemo; she’d originally planned to take one a day, an idea that quickly became unthinkable, she says, when she began to experience excruciating pain and weakness. She started shooting two days before surgery, looking vibrant and facing the camera head-on with an “I’m ready for anything” expression, and continued through weeks of radical chemotherapy that left her so sick she couldn’t keep down even an ice cube, so depleted at times she had to be carried to the bathroom.

Thirty-six of those photos are on display in “Aftermath,” an award-winning series now on view at SF Camerawork. The 22-inch x 16.75-inch prints face one another on two walls. They were taken with a

Mamiya 645 medium format (non-digital) camera and developed as color transparencies that Mansfield then scanned and printed on a high-end color printer. Displayed chronologically, the images show an unflinchingly honest portrait of a young woman’s grim journey through an ordeal that is above all a test of physical and psychological fortitude. “Once I started, I thought, I’m going to finish this thing if it kills me,” she says.

Now 40, her honey-blonde curls flowing once more, the petite Mansfield is eager to comment on the photos that she took so many years ago. A self-described clotheshorse, she is wearing a long black and yellow sweater, leggings and black boots with wedge heels on a rainy day, a jaunty striped scarf around her neck, her fingernails bright red. Her journey to her current state, formal remission, has been a long one.

She points to the second image in the line-up, the day-before-surgery photo, her right breast marked with a Sharpie. It is immediately followed by one taken two days after surgery, in which she wears glasses, hair pinned back (by her mother;
she couldn’t lift her right arm), holding a Jackson-Pratt Drain (used to eliminate fluids from the surgery site). Next to that is a final picture of her waist-length hair—back to camera—because, a few photos later, after the start of chemo, she pre-empted hair loss by cutting it short and dying it brown.

Mansfield had always planned to be a still-life photographer (her most recent series is “Expired,” 2013, an exquisite series of still lifes of books) as she had no desire to photograph people. “I really hate pictures of myself,” she says, “but because I didn’t think I was going to show this to anybody, that made it OK…. I don’t like being in the room with people during the exhibit,” she adds. “I get uncomfortable. It’s like being a specimen in a Petri dish.” In the photos, her face becomes increasingly anguished, her body contorted, as she moves from post-mastectomy discomfort to chemo, which, she says, made recovery from surgery seem like a massage.

After the third round of chemo, Mansfield is bald; she captures herself in a variety of eloquent poses. Arms criss-crossed over her chest in one, in profile with bowed head, almost prayer-like, in another. Back to the camera with one hand, fingers splayed, pressed against the wall. A hand clutching her head. A hand pressed to her heart. An apprehensive side glance at the camera. A frown. A glazed, fixed stare into the middle distance. She hadn’t waited for the chemo to take her hair; she went to a barbershop in the Castro and said, “Take it all off!” (The barber didn’t charge her.) It gave her a certain feeling of control over her fate. In several photos, lacking the strength to stand up, she is sitting on the bathtub ledge, only her head visible. In others, a pair of magnetic blue eyes gazes fiercely at the camera. “I was pissed!” she says, of one. “But I was hell-bent on getting out the other side.”

She points to some faintly visible tan lines. Her mother paid for her to spend four days in Hawaii between treatments. She says she couldn’t have made it without that respite.

“In this picture, I started wearing eye makeup,” she notes, “for the first time ever [because] I felt I was scary-looking . . . unfeminine.” She lost her eyelashes and eyebrows; her eyes look luminous and ineffably sad. After a sixth cycle of chemo, she photographed only her arm, fist raised. “I used to have good body strength, but here, where are my biceps?” she says. She indicates another photograph, in which she feels she emitted a toxic, greenish glow. And in another, she gazes thoughtfully at a bottle of Tamoxifen—the doctors wanted her to take the medication, but after suffering bad side effects, she decided against it. “Here, my hair is growing in, mousy brown,” she says. “I tried to dye it blonde, but your body secretes chemo and the hair turned orange.” She points. “See, I’m crying. It’s the only picture where I’m crying, and it’s about my hair!” She dyed her hair red after that, then black. She has written that the images began to seem like a dialogue between her will to live and the chemical poisons in her body.

Initially Mansfield put the photos away, but eventually she was tempted to send them out. At first choosing 10, she spent three months preparing them. There were hitches along the way: she had made mistakes in exposure and set-ups “due to a muddled mind and incessant pain that made it hard to focus,” as she writes in an artist’s statement. In one case her camera batteries ran out, unbeknownst to her. And to match the blue tile background color, which can mutate from print batch to batch, she painstakingly created a giant set of grids, with her own image in black silhouette, in order to get an absolutely consistent shade of blue from frame to frame. When an image was accepted for “Photo District News”—it had been a dream of hers to appear in that professional publication—and then appeared on Reddit, she began to receive grateful emails from viewers all over the country. “In my mind I thought only photographers would see it!” she says. When she entered the images in competitions in 2009 and 2010, the series took on a life of its own.

Mansfield has never had a solo show in a space as big as Camerawork’s. “People send

me emails saying ‘You’re so brave!’ she says. “That seems bizarre to me. There’s a fine line between bravery and sheer stupidity!” Looking back, she writes, “I was not brave nor was I a victim. I was stubborn.” Not knowing how she would look or feel, she picked up her camera to “self-document the catharsis of my own cancer treatment.” The series is likely to prove cathartic for the viewer as well.

It is on exhibit along with a “Seeing Through: Stories About Cancer and Connection,” a collaborative project between Michael Shindler and Help Each Other Out.

Through January 24

SF Camerawork

1011 Market St., 415/487-1011

sfcamerawork.org