While working as a boudoir photographer, Charise Isis met a client who'd inspire her to take her work in a whole new direction. Although she had an appointment for a sexy bedroom photoshoot, this woman asked to remain covered up, revealing to Isis that she had a mastectomy scar on one of her breasts and, despite having had it for 12 years, she still felt ashamed of it.
"As she became comfortable, she began to reveal her non-mastectomy breast to the camera, while leaving her scarred breast covered," Isis tells Refinery29. "[I could tell] she was feeling sexy and beautiful and really enjoying herself, when suddenly she threw off her top and exclaimed, 'Fuck it, I’m doing this for myself!'"
In a stunning coincidence, one of Isis' friends contacted her mere days later to shoot her before her breasts were "chopped off" in a mastectomy. "I couldn’t let go of those two very different but powerful experiences," she says. Something began to dawn on Isis: Women deserve to feel beautiful — and living with breast cancer shouldn't stand in their way.
It wasn't long after that Isis started the Grace Project, in which she photographs women who have undergone mastectomies, baring their scars proudly in lavish settings. The resulting images are at once regal and realistic: women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds holding their heads high and owning their illness.
Isis explains that she aims to make each woman feel and look like a goddess, a work of art on par with Hellenic era sculptures. "Embracing this archetype allows my subjects to feel empowered," she says. "When a woman is present in her body and owns her experience, she sends a powerful message out into the world and etches that message on her own heart."
Beyond bolstering her subjects' sense of self-worth, Isis wants the Grace Project to show others, who might not be directly affected by breast cancer, that there's no such thing as an easy way out of this illness. "It is thought that once treatment is done, that it’s over," she says, adding that side-effects of treatment can stay with survivors for the rest of their lives, including loss of sensitivity due to a mastectomy and forced menopause.
The women of the Grace Project prove that their mastectomies – and their cancer, for that matter – are only one part of who they are. Ahead, meet a selection of them and know them by the ancient goddess' name Isis has given them.