The Power of a Portrait

How AWARE CT Raised Awareness of Breast Cancer, Then Created a Community

In sickness we look for strength, in ourselves and in our community. And it’s a beautiful thing when we find it.

On March 7, AWARE CT hosted a sold-out fundraiser, “Hope Starts Here: Photography Exhibition,” at Pop’t Art Gallery in Westport (formerly Calypso) to benefit The Cancer Couch Foundation. Hung in the Gallery were portraits, many of which were displayed in stores and restaurants around town: portraits of breast cancer survivors and those affected by breast cancer. Accompanying each portrait were narratives of survival, loss, endurance and above all, love. “When you put a face to the story it makes it real and personal,” says Amy Saperstein, co-director of AWARE CT.

While Amy and her co-director, Nicole Gerber, worked tirelessly to manage the initiative, portraiture was the brainchild of Jerri Graham, who donated her talent to shoot these photos. Jerri’s portraits are intentionally raw, the unfiltered image reflective of each subject’s emotion.

Illness is isolating. Friends and neighbors stay away from you because they don’t know what to say or do. They may feel uncomfortable being around you if you’re sick. If a loved one is sick, you may put their needs above your own. We often find ourselves alone when we crave solidarity. The times we can’t take our support system for granted are the times we need it most.

Yet sorrow is often diminished when shared with others. The portraits gave people a medium to express their grief in a unique and relatable manner. The unexpected popularity of AWARE CT’s campaign revealed an underswell of residents affected by cancer and their need to tell their story. Although AWARE CT’s goals were to increase awareness and raise funds for the Cancer Couch, they did much more: They enabled people to speak up and advocate for themselves and their loved ones. They celebrated people who are helpless to a ravaging disease. They created a community.

While an awareness campaign created a community of healing bereavement, the COVID pandemic threatens to dismantle it with fear and disbelief.

Four days after “Hope Starts Here” our schools closed due to the deadly global pandemic. Town health officials condemned social interaction and families self-quarantined. Westport residents are now tested by the myriad of emotions that accompany debilitating illness. Small business owners are weighing insurmountable financial losses against the health of their employees and community.

When you read this you’ll have much more information than when I wrote this, as our publication is completed two months in advance. Already, though, we see glimpses of connectivity.

On Facebook we inform but don’t deride those afflicted with corona virus. We find ways to patronize and support local business and restaurants while our health professionals warn us against social interactions. We’re surrounded by family. We even take long walks with teenaged family members who would otherwise never be seen with us in public.

To paraphrase an AWARE CT narrative by a breast cancer “survivor” Michelle Didner, Westport can be whole in our brokenness. We are not survivors, we are warriors. And we are humble and grateful.

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