Ramzi Mansour’s project reveals the humanity and strength of women with cancer. His photographic series does not tell stories of suffering and death, but rather reflects the authenticity and peace they each found on their journeys.
How did you come up with the idea for the project?
I was originally approached by a magazine to do a cover shoot. I accepted, on the condition that I was allowed to have creative control, as I wanted it to express something more than beauty or fashion. I suggested breast cancer and it was accepted. Several months later, I was told that a big beauty brand had bought the cover and that, although they still wanted me to do the shoot, they wanted to explore the option of having their products in the pictures. Although I understood what they were aiming for, I felt that it didn’t resonate with what I had in mind, and I felt it wrong to accept. I came home and when I told my wife, she said: “Do it by yourself. I’ll help you.” That was all I needed. I then decided that I would do a book.
Your book includes a series of 42 women: how did you meet them and get them excited about your project?
The project took a little over 2 years. It was about showing the work in my intimate fashion portraits, and having the women feel comfortable that I could do the same for them in their own way. I always started by telling them that I wasn’t after a beauty shoot. Most had seen my work and all were very nervous, although also very excited. What I tried to stress was that I wanted to capture a moment in time for them: the time they spent with me telling me their story. In doing so, I always managed to find that one moment that made them and I feel very special. I also believe that when they understood what I was doing, it made it even easier. They realised that it was never just another photo shoot, but rather something that had never been done before. To photograph and portray the stories of 42 women who journeyed with cancer? It’s a first, and they were all so inspired to help inspire others.
How important is the discussion of cancer for the general public?
The subject of cancer is still taboo in non-first-world countries. But cancer doesn’t discriminate between a woman who is born in America or born in Africa. It doesn’t care if you have money or don’t; it doesn’t matter if you are educated or not. Cancer is cancer. First-world countries are stepping up to the plate and acknowledging how severe this disease is. I’m simply trying to use the platform I have, to help start that same conversation in third-world countries, where hopefully one day women will not feel ashamed or guilt ridden or scared to speak up.
Your pictures show women with a smile on their faces. The viewer has no idea what they have behind them, what they have gone through…
While taking the portraits of these incredible women, it was very important to try to showcase each of them as authentic and beautiful as I saw them. The fact that they had or have cancer didn’t, and doesn’t, change that they are beautiful people. We tapped into the journey they shared, and in doing so we saw the inspiration that they showed; those were the moments when I would take the picture. So, rather than a posed sit down, it was a communication of sorts, and a photo that matched the conversation. I wanted to show the humanity of these women. I wanted to show these women as powerful women who have, literally, gone through hell and back, and yet have open arms to anyone and anything. I didn’t want to show what they had been or were going through as a morbid tale; nor did I want to show a gleaming smile of teeth. I wanted to show the authenticity and the peace they had all found within their own journey.
You chose to portray the protagonists closely: to what extent is the portrait the best way to tell their story?
These women have truly inspired me and thousands of others. The portraits I did had to be close up. It had to showcase their eyes and the story in their eyes. I wanted the viewer to see their faces and their emotions, and connect with them in a soft and gentle, human way. They were photographed in a way that was soft, and not as victims of cancers. It wasn’t a whole body or ¾ shoot, but a very connected, intimate close-up, to connect the viewer with the story.
How did you manage to get so close to the women?
The honest answer was that I had to be genuine and authentic. I had to be honest with them, and I had to listen to them. I showed them that I cared about their story, because I truly did. I showed them that I wanted the world to see and hear their story, because I truly did. In that honesty, they showed me vulnerability and truth. I am forever grateful for those moments.
You used the Leica S007: how did it work for this project?
I always tethered the Leica to a very large monitor, because these women weren’t models. They were very nervous and often embarrassed to be in front of a camera. I used the tethering to show them, picture by picture, what we were doing, and I asked them to be involved with the shoot. This helped them relax and they could see in real time what was happening. My reason for the S007 is simple: it’s probably one of the best medium format cameras in the world. Its 3D look is second to none, and the rendering of the Summicron lens (Leica Summicron 100mm f/2) was perfect for what I wanted.
Apart from the disease, what is it that unites all the women? And what separates them?
The common denominator for these women is resilience. Their strength to get up and move forward every day. The ability to find a reason to live and fight the disease. Many are mothers, many are creatives, many are businesswomen. There is so much that unites the women that it’s a difficult question to answer. With regards to the book, I didn’t find anything that separates the women. Again, so many are from different backgrounds, ages, cultures, religions, and financial standing, but I believe that is true of all humans.
What does resilience mean to you?
To me resilience is about that inner critic (fear) you have that says it can’t be done; or it won’t be done; or that you will fail. It’s that inner power (love) that overcomes your inner critic to see it through; to accept the present, and that if you do so with courage, bravery and self-love, anything can be gotten through.
What did you learn from the project?
After two years with this project, I can say categorically, 100%, that I have learnt how to be more humble. I have seen how incredibly lucky and blessed I am, as is my family. I have seen the kind of pain and anguish that one only sees in movies; and I have seen the hope and strength and courage to fight on. This project has moved me to the core. I have honestly been given the chance to find non-judgement in my thinking, and to be more mindful of others, because you truly never know what the next person is going through until you walk in their shoes. It’s been a humbling and blessed experience.
Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1973, Ramzi Mansour attributes his passion for black and white photography to the classic portraiture of the 1980s, as well as the groundbreaking work of the photographers who captured the rise of the supermodels in the 1990s. It is his hope to honour his subjects and capture timeless, ageless, classic images that speak to the authenticity inside us all. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, he shoots on location and in studio. Learn more about his project on the RESILIENCE website. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.