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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

07 Leah

RPS Fellowship portrays women with secondary breast cancer

Jennifer Willis FRPS talks about her moving Fellowship portfolio of women living with incurable breast cancer in Northern Ireland

‘Leah’ from the series Seen to be Heard 

Seen to be Heard, a series of portraits showing women in Northern Ireland with secondary breast cancer, is the work of Jennifer Willis FRPS.

In an interview for the RPS Journal, Willis revealed how she achieved an RPS Fellowship Distinction using images from her intensely personal series. Here she expands on that story, offering new insights into the process of creating such an impressive Fellowship submission – one that she hopes will change hearts and minds.

03 Amanda

‘Amanda’ from the series Seen to be Heard

“This is a project which has consumed me for the last two years. However, it did not start as a Fellowship portfolio – it started as an exhibition called Seen to be Heard.

“When a friend, Cheryl, told me of her devastating diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, I braced myself and asked if she would like me to take some photographs of her and the family. Her answer was immediate: ‘Yes, I would love that, and soon please – before I start looking ill.’

“On a later walk, by which time she had lost her hair, I took a few photographs of Cheryl looking rather different than just a few months earlier. She saw something in one of those photographs that led her to ask me if I would be willing to photograph her until the inevitable end. At the time, her prognosis was nine months to two years. I agreed.

019 Vanda

‘Vanda’ from the series Seen to be Heard

“We had coffee and a good chat the day before we went into the studio. I wanted to know her story, about her cancer and in terms of photographing her, where the boundaries were.  She told me that there were no boundaries.

“I found her story distressing and I had to ask her to repeat it over lunch next day at the studio. It was one of missed opportunities for earlier diagnoses, not being listened to when she presented to her doctor with health issues, years of delay in testing for the BRCA2 gene mutation (she eventually tested positive), denial of choice regarding treatment and even surgery.

“‘We don’t take away healthy tissue’ was the reason for rejecting her repeated requests for a double mastectomy. Worst of all, perhaps, was the seeming lack of empathy demonstrated by some who were meant to be caring for her, especially oncologists. It seemed like, as she could not be cured, she was not worthy of too much time or attention.

"I think most shocking of all was when she told me that in the whole of Northern Ireland there is only one secondary breast cancer specialist nurse. To have secondary breast cancer in Northern Ireland means no one to hold a hand during appointments, no one to help explain treatments or their side effects, no one to guide them to trials … Oh, and there are no drug trials in Northern Ireland. Until just over two years ago there was not even a support group for women with secondary breast cancer in Northern Ireland.

014 Elaine

‘Elaine’ from the series Seen to be Heard

“In my conversations with Cheryl I realised that I, as a middle aged, educated woman, had not even heard of secondary breast cancer, nor had I realised its implications. That day, I knew that women in Cheryl’s situation, living with this misunderstood, devastating diagnosis, would benefit from help. I also knew that I had taken a special image of her while I stood precariously above her on ladders, her eyes the feature as she looked up into the camera lens with the flat chest of her mastectomy visible. So, in the car on the way home I offered to help her to raise awareness of what it means to live with secondary breast cancer in Northern Ireland.

“Before I knew it, I was sitting around a kitchen table in Belfast with about eight women: the oldest was 64, the youngest only 38. They each had reasons for wanting or needing to tell their stories, and so many of them were very similar to Cheryl’s. I explained that I thought I could help by putting together an exhibition of their portraits. I told them that the images needed to be raw and powerful, showing the physical and emotional pain of living with this devastating disease. I wanted to ensure people sat up and listened. My images would give them a voice.

“Later, I had decided that we could hold an exhibition with images of 16 women. On 28 March 2022, just seven months after the first photoshoot, we opened in Belfast Exposed photography gallery. The exhibition was scheduled to run for four weeks but was extended for an extra week due to the demand.

05 Cheryl

‘Cheryl’ from the series Seen to be Heard

“At the opening event, I asked Ross McKelvey [a fellow photographer] what he thought, and his answer led me to follow up – might the images be Fellowship worthy?

“I knew 15 of the original exhibition images would be suitable for a Fellowship submission. More women had already volunteered to be part of the Seen to be Heard project. I did not photograph them with a view to fitting them into a particular place in the panel but continued as I had done for the exhibition. I suppose I just knew that I would be able to make the images work. It was more an instinct, a feeling, thanks to my intimate knowledge and dedication to the whole project.

“This portfolio, this body of work was personal. Yes, I had to fulfil the requirements of the RPS but I felt a great need for the viewer to see beyond any minor lack of cohesion and to understand my need to be authentic to the subject matter and to those I had photographed.”

All images by Jennifer Willis FRPS. Find out here about RPS Distinctions and other qualifications.

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