Bald is Beautiful with Christine Yodsukar
Glamour photography has evolved in many ways over the years. At the heart of it is strength, beauty and a magical je ne sais quoi in the person being photographed. We see these images in makeup advertisements in magazines, on TV and on billboards. They tell us what it means to be a strong, beautiful, magical woman. But what about the times in our lives when we don’t feel anywhere near this ideal we see everywhere—like when we have just had a baby and are too overwhelmed to even take a shower or brush our hair daily; or we have just experienced a major loss and could care less how we look because we feel so miserable; or when illness takes over our body, mind and soul? I specialize in shooting glamour for women in that last scenario.
In May 2017, I was introduced to an organization in my community called Breast Friends of Oregon, which ensures that no woman goes through cancer alone. It was founded by friends Becky Olson and Sharon Henifen as they experienced life-changing diagnoses. Breast Friends is a place where women can talk openly about what they are feeling, thinking and experiencing with other women who have lived through it. Women with a new cancer diagnosis are often reluctant to talk about it with friends and family because they don’t want to burden them, but having someone there who understands the feelings and emotions and decisions to be made is an invaluable resource.
After I shot their annual fundraising gala, they asked me if I would take over as the photographer of their Bald Is Beautiful program. Women undergoing cancer treatment who have lost their hair come get their hair and makeup done and receive a photo session. I loved this idea, and I wanted to build on it. I wanted to give these women the same five-star experience I give all my portrait clients, from discovery phone call to photo reveal.
The women I photograph for Bald Is Beautiful come to my studio a little apprehensive. Most have never been shot professionally, but there’s more: They’re bald, sick and overwhelmed. These women have had so much thrown at them in such a short amount of time that taking even a moment for themselves is a struggle. We try to slow things down from the moment they walk through our studio doors.
These beautiful women are greeted by a handful of women including myself, our hair and makeup artist, and some women from Breast Friends. We hug them, welcome them in, ask them how they are feeling today. It is an interesting moment for someone who is not privy to this secret sisterhood of cancer fighters and survivors. That simple question is different for them. There are dry mouths, painful incision points, watery eyes (not from emotion), cold heads, too many appointments. There is skin falling off, weight gain and family members who don’t understand. When people who do understand ask them how they are feeling, you see their shoulders relax, their breath deepen and a sense of comfort come over them. There is no better way to start a session.
They sit down in the hair and makeup chair with the nationally renowned stylist Tracy Shulz, whose work has been seen on billboards in Times Square and on magazine covers and in advertisements all over the world. She also has a heart of pure love. She makes them feel more comfortable about the five lone hairs that have stood strong on their head, the constant watery eyes and the person they don’t recognize in the mirror. She asks them what they normally do with their makeup and how they would like it done. Through some form of sorcery, she creates eyelashes and eyebrows that you wouldn’t know were false from a few feet away, and somehow matches the skin on their head to the skin on their face (not something you’d normally think about, but a very real concern for these women). Simply put, Tracy blows them away every time, setting the stage for me to create some magic for them.
For their shoot, I focus on their face. I learned to do that from one of my very first phone calls with a woman from my first Bald Is Beautiful shoot. I was wondering how the heck I should photograph these women to show their strength and their journey, and she said something I will never forget. When I asked her, “What would you like people to know when they look at your photos?” she responded: “I want people to know that I am not my cancer. I am me.” And that was my lightbulb moment. I was not photographing their cancer. I was photographing them.
The photos are technically simple. I use natural light in my studio, a 55mm or 85mm lens, and a black V-flat as my backdrop. The emotional connection is where my skills come into play. The skill takes time to develop, but it’s pretty simple: I talk to them. I talk to these women and empower them to feel their strength, their sadness, their beauty, to feel proud of how far they have come on their journey. The photographs that result are ones I actually dreamed of creating early in my career, photographs that show someone’s soul, their troubles and triumphs, all wrapped into one. Because that is what we are. None of us are all wins and successes, and none of us are all failures and falls. We are all a beautiful and powerful combination of all of our life experiences, and that is what makes us the unique and magical beings that we are.
While glamour photography is all about showing a woman’s strength and beauty, it goes a few steps deeper with the women I have the privilege of photographing for Bald Is Beautiful. Instead of focusing on the cancer that has brought them to my chair, the cancer is just one piece of their story. It does not define them and it never will, because their journeys will continue long after they sit in front of me and my camera, and it will continue long after the daily radiation appointments or weekly chemo appointments, and after scars have healed. The photographs they take home from my studio will be printed and hung on walls. They will be pulled out when family members want to tell stories to her loved ones about how brave their grandmother was, how smart she was, how much she loved them. They will look at these photos and say, “She was so beautiful. She was so strong. And she was so many other things too. Let me tell you about her life.”
Being a part of this program has changed me as a photographer and as a person. Each client is more precious to me now, and, oddly enough, I am more precious to me now. These beautiful women have shared their journey with us, and for that I cannot thank them enough.
Here is how one client, Haley Hardin, described her experience with me.
When I was going through chemo last January, one of the hardest parts was losing my hair. It felt like a part of me was missing and it was hard to feel like myself or feel beautiful. Putting on makeup to compensate for the loss of hair is exhausting when your body is going through treatment. You can feel just as terrible on the outside as you feel on the inside. Christine changed that feeling for me. Being in her studio after getting professional makeup done was a blast and has had a lasting impact on me. I’ve never felt so beautiful, and at a time when I walked in feeling my worst! Her energy is so positive and enthusiastic. She kept telling me how great I looked. The day we did the photo reveal, I cried because of how great the photos were and how gorgeous I felt. I wish every woman going through chemo could experience this. So many patients wear wigs or cover their heads for fear of judgement and lack of confidence in their beauty. But they are just as beautiful as they always have been, and it is such a freeing feeling to embrace our beautiful bald heads! Bald Is Beautiful is a warm and positive experience in my cancer journey that I will cherish forever, and I will always have the beautiful images to look back on.
We now photograph three women every month for Bald Is Beautiful, and hope to shoot many, many more. Learn more about Breast Friends of Oregon at www.breastfriends.org