“The Art of Reconstruction: Tattoo Artist Helps Breast Cancer Patients Reclaim Their Identity” by Michelle Gabel

Cherie Mullen, 40, of New Haven, NY, is one of many breast cancer patients who have been tattooed by Kim Leach, owner of Phoenix Rising Tattoo. After her breast reconstruction, Mullen, shown with her daughter, Desiree, 11, had Leach cover scars from her treatment. The butterfly covers her scar from her chemotherapy port and the vine covers a mastectomy scar.
Michelle Gabel/The Post-Standard

Photojournalist, Michelle Gabel, has long been one of my photo idols. I met her while interning at the Syracuse Post Standard back in 1999 when I was a photojournalism grad student at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. Her work had a delicacy and visual subtlety about it that seemed to put it in a different world from the more brash, graphic photographs many of her peers were making. She seemed to be in just the right place when a quiet and particularly meaningful interaction happened between her subjects or when a spontaneous moment of humor unfolded.

When I got to know Michelle as a friend, I began to understand why she was able to capture these moments. Michelle is a disarmingly gentle person and she is passionate about her work. She invests herself so deeply in her projects–particularly when working on long term stories–and her subjects trust her implicitly. Michelle also seeks out subject matter that interests her and she brings to her stories an empathy and intelligence that makes them both informative and very moving. I asked Michelle to choose a photo from her recent project about women getting tattoos on their mastectomy scars to talk about.

Michelle Gabel: I began this project, “The Art of Reconstruction,” with writer Janet Gramza, featuring former nurse and tattoo artist, Kim Leach, who uses tattoos to cover the scars of mastectomy patients. In the process, we also ended up documenting the stories of two breast cancer survivors whose recoveries were aided by having Kim turn their scars into works of art. These women said getting the tattoos marked the first time they were able to take control of their bodies since being diagnosed with cancer and also helped them to feel better about their appearance after painful and frightening treatments and surgeries. The story was published in The Post-Standard, the daily newspaper in Syracuse, NY.

The woman depicted in this photo is Cherie Mullen, 40, one of the breast cancer patients tattooed by Leach. After being diagnosed with cancer in her left breast, Cherie endured chemotherapy, a mastectomy, a second round of chemo, and 33 days of radiation. When a test showed she had the BRCA2 gene, indicating a high risk of recurrence, she decided to have her other breast removed. After breast reconstruction surgeries, Cherie, shown with her daughter, Desiree, 11, had Kim cover her chemotherapy port with a tattoo of a butterfly and her mastectomy scar with a vine and breast cancer ribbon.

My challenge with this portrait was to show the artwork on Cherie’s chest, just above her reconstructed breasts, portray her demeanor, choose a setting, create the right light, and also drape her clothing in a way that wasn’t considered too revealing for a family newspaper. (My editors nervously stressed “no nipples.”) I arrived at Cherie’s house midday, tried a few different backgrounds, and ended up choosing the window because it was draped with a garland that kind of echoed the theme of her tattoos. Cherie, who was very committed to the story, was incredibly patient with me during this 2-3 hour long shoot. After photographing Cherie alone for a while, I asked if her daughter, Desiree, would be in the photo too. I used three lights: One on their faces, one on Cherie’s tattoos, and one on the background. As depicted in the photo, Cherie and Desiree are very close and this image went well with Cherie’s emphasis on “Faith, Family, and Friends,” words inscribed above a tattoo on her back celebrating her five-year anniversary of being cancer free.

to see the complete photo essay, go to:


or to see the photos with text, go to:


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