November 7, 2016 5:45 pm
Updated: November 7, 2016 8:45 pm

Alberta photography project highlights beauty in scars

WATCH ABOVE: An Edmonton photographer is on a mission to portray scars in a positive light. Lorna Dancey and her brave models hope to change how society sees scars and how people with scars see themselves. Emily Mertz has the story.

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Scars are not something to ashamed of, pointed at or mocked. They are part of us, they tell our stories and should be celebrated for that. They are strength and they are beautiful. Those are the messages fuelling the SCARS Photography Project.

“I get messages saying: ‘you are making scars look beautiful, you make me feel like my scar is beautiful now’ and I want them to be proud,” Edmonton photographer Lorna Dancey said.

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She is taking pictures of people with scars to change the perception of them.

“When you stare at someone with an obvious scar… you’re hurting them. If you nudge or you giggle or you wink at your friend to look at them, they know.”

Dancey also wants to change how people with scars feel about themselves.

“When I photograph someone, I don’t see what they don’t like about themselves. I see what I see,” she said.

“I see beautiful eyes, I see this amazing smile, I see them light up, and I just wanted to portray that to them.”

One of her models is Joy Zylstra. When she was nine, an explosion at a cabin in B.C. left her with second- and third-degree burns on 45 per cent of her body.

“Teenage years were really hard,” Zylstra said. “I was very depressed. I hated them. I would scratch at my face and just pray to God to take them away and make me normal.”

READ MORE: ‘You don’t see the scar… you see the person’: Burn survivors share their stories 

It wasn’t until Zylstra had a daughter of her own that she started to feel differently about her scars.

“I don’t ever want her to look at herself and be ashamed about anything. So how can I expect that of her or raise her to believe that if I don’t believe it myself?”

Being part of the Scars Photography Project has been transformative for Zylstra.

“It brought out something in me that I didn’t know was there,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I don’t even know how to put it into words.

“She showed me my soul.”

“For somebody to just capture the pain, the love – kind of everything I’ve been through in the past 23 years – was just an incredible thing to see,” Zylstra said.

In August 2015, Michelle Schaefer was diagnosed with breast cancer. Nine days after she got the news, she had a double mastectomy.

READ MORE: The SHE Project: celebrating the scars of breast cancer 

“When you go home and you take off the armour from fighting and you have to stand there and look at yourself in the mirror and you see the two scars across your chest and the bald head, you have a difficult time feeling beautiful, much less a woman.”

One of the most difficult things for her was the way her disease is portrayed.

“Usually the images that are out there are very dark and harshly edited,” Schaefer said. “Severe-looking women with just two scars across their chest and stubble on their head and very black and white.

“I wanted to be a piece of how that perception has changed,” she said.

That’s what motivated her to take part in the Scars Project.

“It wasn’t about me anymore,” Schaefer said. “It was about being a strong influence for the women that are fighting this disease, the women that have yet to fight this disease. I wanted to make it look a little less scary for the next person that has to deal with this.”

“What Lorna’s doing with this project is she’s changing the perception of what beautiful is.”

And while Schaefer wants to help others, the process is also helping her.

“I felt more beautiful that day when she took the pictures of me than I did on my wedding day. It was very empowering. It was one of those life-changing moments for sure.”

READ MORE: Breast cancer survivor hopes ‘Woman Redefined’ portrait book will help others

To learn more about the Scars Photography Project or to take part, contact Dancey through her Facebook page: Lorna Dancey Photography.

“It’s about the moments and the magic that happens,” Schaefer said. “There’s a lot of good things that have come out of this. I’ve honestly never been happier in my life.”

Meanwhile, Zylstra now can’t imagine herself without her scars.

“They show that life tried to knock you down but you rose up.”

Dancey and Schaefer are now working together on another photography project – Through the Looking Glass – that will profile women battling breast cancer in a positive light.

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