Boudoir Photography and Breast Cancer
Jen Rozenbaum is helping women find their inner light during their darkest time.
Brilliantly: When I first was thinking about starting Brilliantly, I had conversations with hundreds of women who’d had an experience with breast cancer and couldn’t believe how many of them said they thought they’d never feel beautiful again. What you do must be so transformative for the women you photograph.
Jen: It is transformative for me too. I see these women, and understand their experience, and can capture their beauty and strength.
Brilliantly: How did you get started as a boudoir photographer?
Jen: In 2008, I was a stay at home mom and trying to have another baby. I had a miscarriage, a botched D&C— all sorts of trouble. After an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured while I was away on vacation, I was at home healing and didn’t want to sit around feeling sorry for myself.
I decided I was going to learn how to use a camera that we bought a year before. A few months later, a photographer friend of mine invited me to assist at a boudoir shoot of two sisters in a hotel room. I went and loved it. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a boudoir photographer. I changed my bedroom into a studio, and my basement into an office and I started a boudoir business.
Brilliantly: That sounds like it was fated. How did you get into doing photographs for the breast cancer community?
Jen: A few years in, I started getting some notoriety. I am really good at posing women and people started asking me if I would teach other photographers. By 2017 I was doing a lot of shooting, teaching, and traveling. It was great.
And then in 2017 I took a selfie of my chest— and I probably never would have noticed if I wasn't a photographer— and saw a lump. I’d had a mammogram a few months earlier and everything was fine. And I had another mammogram and sonogram coming up, so I stupidly decided to wait.
In July they did a sonogram to check some cysts on my right side, I left I asked it they could check the lump I’d found. It turned out, long story short, that it was stage 2B invasive lobular carcinoma.
When I was diagnosed, I knew that it was purposeful for me that I had a female audience. I had a camera. I had the ability to document my journey, not just for me, but for everybody. When I needed to have a mastectomy, I started looking online at pictures and it scared the crap out of me.
Brilliantly: I remember doing way too much googling before my mastectomy and being really afraid of what I saw and read.
Jen: I really want to work on not only making women feel beautiful before, during, and after cancer, but normalizing breast cancer bodies and what they go through.
It’s scary when things are unknown. When I needed to have drains, I had never seen a drain. So I took pictures. I took pictures of myself and other people. Part of my mission is giving cancer a purpose so it's not just a disease.
Brilliantly: It’s awesome that you can help women at every step of the process. There is so much value in having the community that exists online now, it’s gotten so much easier to find helpful information, images, people to talk to. And, to your point, normalizing what happens at every part of this process is just so critical and important for peace of mind.
Jen: The generations before us were so quiet about things, as if it were shameful to get breast cancer. There are so many women being diagnosed, many of them young and knowing that you’re not alone is so important.
The educational part of these communities is important too, teaching women to know to check your breasts or what abnormal breasts look like. You need to know when to call your doctor. You're not a nag if you feel something three weeks after your mammogram, you know?
Brilliantly: When I really think about the community of women I’ve met I can’t help but feel it’s all sort of bittersweet. Some of them have become my closest friends and I’m so grateful for that while also disappointed that this terrible disease brought us together. All of the things co-exist at once— friendship and loss, love and grief. And you’re taking something painful and creating such beautiful imagery. And with boudoir photography specifically, I think it helps the whole population of people that maybe are afraid to imagine their body as sexy again.
Jen: I posted a photo about a week after one of my surgeries. My incisions were bloody, my bruises were really dark from fat grafting and I still had drains. I did my hair, and I put my makeup on and I got in front of the camera. In the photo I'm smiling, and I'm posing perfectly with all of this happening on my body. My intention was to shock people, to say, "Look, this is what's going on under my clothes!” I could walk out of the house with clothes on and you would never know. But this is what's happening, and there is beauty in this moment.
Brilliantly: I just love that you’re changing the dynamic of what we think cancer patients should look like.
Jen: I always thought of a cancer patient as sitting at home, bald, throwing up, weak, and that is awful. I love the images of women dancing around, having fun and laughing. That’s not to say that this is all unicorns and rainbows, let's be honest. But there are moments like real growth and genuine strength. And if you are lucky enough to survive and be healthy enough to enjoy your life, then life is good post-cancer. It just takes time to get there.
Brilliantly: Finding something positive or empowering is part of what builds resilience. We all are capable of finding ways to live well and feel good despite hardship.
Jen: That’s what gets you through.
Brilliantly: Can we talk a bit about the process of doing boudoir photos? What’s it like?
Jen: Most people I work with have never done them before and being nervous is totally normal. I know it sounds super scary, but it's not anywhere near as scary as you think. Usually the people who reach out already know me and my story from Instagram so they trust me.
Brilliantly: Of course! And seeing all the gorgeous images is helpful and inspiring.
Jen: I send women a prep guide, and am available for questions about what to wear. We have some conversation about what they want to get from the session. Then we decide if they want hair and makeup or if they’re bald, if they have eyelashes, if they’re comfortable showing scars or want to be more covered. Sometimes I do before and after sessions for women having mastectomies.
Typically, the shoots are done in my studio in New York with my hair and makeup teams. It’s really fun to look at what women bring to wear, and create a story based on the different outfits. And we shoot for about an hour to two hours, and then they get to choose whatever photos that they’d like.
Brilliantly: It seems like you're really good at helping people pose in a way that looks natural and comfortable and sexy.
Jen: Yes. It's my expertise. What I teach the most is posing. You don't have to be 10 pounds thinner, or taller, or curvier, you just have to listen to me and you’ll see that you are the most beautiful woman in the world.
Brilliantly: It can be hard to get comfortable and take direction, I bet. Especially when it’s the first time.
Jen: During the shoot it's just me and the client so it’s also comfortable. I want to create a safe place for people to come in, talk about what they want to talk about. I always say that my studio is sort of like a vault. These walls hold a lot of secrets. You know, like things that happen and get said stay here. And that's what I want.
I don't call myself a photographer. I call myself a "photogratherapist." Even though I'm not a therapist, there is a therapeutic aspect to what I do. And part of that is giving people a safe space to just be who they are, speak their mind, and cry if they want, laugh if they want, feel like a total badass.
Brilliantly: Awesome, I love that. And it seems like you have props and setups that fit each of those vibes.
Jen: Women bring their own wardrobe, but I do have a few things in the studio. Like a big tulle skirt, some jewelry. But I think that it's important for women to bring the things that they love, what they're comfortable with, what makes them flattered, and we work with that. I have an expression, "Boudoir is who you are.”
Brilliantly: And who you are changes over time, right, especially with the breast cancer community. Do you find that there’s a typical time in the journey that women reach out to you?
Jen: Not really. When women contact me, they’re super ready, and they’ve thought about it quite a bit. Women are reaching out to say things like, "I can't wait to book a shoot with you." Almost like doing photos is the capstone. Sometimes that’s after nipple tattoos or nipple reconstruction, or another moment that a woman feels ready to be seen.
That isn’t always when someone feels “done.” I've shot many women while they're in the process, almost like a benchmark.
Brilliantly: I love thinking about it as punctuation on being through a particular part of the journey or to capture who you are and how you feel at a specific moment in time.
Jen: Yes. I just photographed a woman getting nipple tattoos the other day. It was such a fascinating transformation.
Brilliantly: And the transformation doesn’t really stop, I think.
Jen: I don't think it ever ends. Cancer changes your perspective, or even the threat of cancer changes your perspective so much that every decision you make for the rest of your life. And you are during cancer and after cancer isn’t the same person.
I look at pictures of myself from before I had cancer and I don't recognize that person. Like, oh, that's Jen before cancer. She is a totally different person. And it's important for people to be honest and normalize that we don’t go back but we can keep moving forward.
Brilliantly: I just love that your work and life are dedicated to making that forward movement feel beautiful and sexy and less lonely.
Jen Rozenbaum is a portrait photographer, breast cancer survivor and author of "What the F*ck Just Happened? A Survivors Guide to Life After Breast Cancer." Through her work both behind the lense and in front of it, she is helping women celebrate their unique femininity and helping breast cancer patients and survivors put their lives back together after cancer.