by Shannon Drury

When Kate Kunkel Bailey's mother underwent a bilateral mastectomy in 2007, the Minneapolis-based writer and photographer didn't buy a pink ribbon; instead, she conceived of a photography project that would go beyond pink to reveal the whole woman behind each incidence of the disease.

"My mom has always been a 'roll with the punches' kind of woman, and I think that the scope of ... recovery from breast cancer was surprising to her," Bailey said. "For her, it wasn't something she could 'roll with.'"

Elli Rader, her friend and collaborator, photographed Bailey's mom with her shirt open, the words "breasts are not for saving, women are" written across her chest in black marker. Positive response to the shots inspired the two women to provide the opportunity for others willing to bare their scars and their souls to the camera. Rader and Kunkel Bailey named the growing series of photographs "Of Scars."

Their first exhibit occurred in 2010. Their third annual, one-day exhibit happens on Sept. 29 at Bailey's Fox Egg Gallery in south Minneapolis.

The exhibition date was chosen deliberately, "before people go blindly into pink month," laughed Bailey, referring to October's designation as National Breast Cancer Awareness month, though she stressed that "this project isn't about judging corporate agendas or politicizing. It's about the fact that your scars, your story, make you who you are. It's about celebrating women, as individuals and as a group."

"[Of Scars] is a people exhibit," Rader said, "not a photography exhibit."

"Survival is beautiful, period. It's our goal to document that fact," Bailey added.

Bailey noted that even in this pink ribbon-saturated culture, "every year someone tells us 'I thought I was all alone.' I don't think pink [branding] totally satisfies that need to connect with other survivors."

Noticing that need for connection led Rader and Bailey to start "Seeing Scars," a free, monthly, discussion series that meets at the Fox Egg Gallery to talk frankly about the realities of life with breast cancer. "People who come don't necessarily want a support group-they want support," Bailey said. "A place where no one will tell you why it's happening, or that it's happening for a reason-that it justis."

"Many of the women that we've met and gotten to know have gained self-confidence and are really able to express what they want and how they feel," Rader said, and she notes they are more likely to advocate for themselves during and after treatment.

"I don't think [a photographer] can be arrogant enough to think that she will change lives, so every time someone says so, it throws you," Bailey said. "It's amazing."

One drawback of the project, Bailey admitted, is that it "self selects for women who are already pretty confident," and in many cases are a great deal younger than the median age of breast cancer diagnosis in the United States, which the National Institutes of Health reports is 61. "As the project grows we want to make it a comfortable place for women of color, LGBT survivors, and women over 80," she said. But, she added, "we can only represent what comes to us."

The final portraits reveal women in all their complexities, by turns defiant, vulnerable, infuriated, joyful or anguished. One smiling model posed in a topless Wonder Woman costume, while another stared grimly into the camera after kicking an angry hole in the studio's wall.

"Breast cancer magnifies every issue confronting women-sexuality, body image, guilt, caretaking, dependence, everything," Bailey said. "Breasts and breast cancer are a part of life," she said. "Our culture sexualizes breasts, medicalizes breasts, and fetishizes breasts, yet we feel like we can't look at this thing we're obsessed about!"

"The event is not meant to be provocative," she added, "but empowering."

The two women have considered taking the project in other directions, to tour the photos or to explore women's stories in other forms, but "[Of Scars] very much has a mind of its own," Rader said. "When we try to force it, it stops being genuine." For now, they are focused on raising both the profile of the project as well as the much-needed funds to keep their "labor of love" available to the women who seek its services, all at no cost to participants.

Bailey's mother, the project's inspiration, couldn't attend the 2012 exhibition. "She's walking the El Camino de Santiago [the Way of St. James] in northern Spain," said her daughter proudly. Such a pilgrimage could only be made by a woman who understands, on a very deep level, that she is far more than the sum of her parts.