Claudia Hehr is a young, talented New York-based photographer transitioning from assisting to shooting full time. Obviously never an easy step, it is probably even harder in these tough times of ours. A great thing to do for a young photographer (or an old one, for that matter) is to work on a good project. Hone your craft, build a showpiece and be a good human being, and that’s exactly what Claudia Hehr did with NAKED, her beautiful, unflinching reportage about a woman’s struggle with breast cancer.
Dirk Anschütz: Claudia, how did you get started in photography?
Claudia Hehr: After I finished High School I came to the US for one year as an au-pair. As part of the au-pair program, I took some photography classes at a local college and that’s when I fell in love with taking pictures. After going back to Germany, I decided to become a photographer against the advice of friends and family (laughs). I apprenticed with the Fashion photographer Burkhard Hellwig in Stuttgart for 3 years and then moved to New York, where I started assisting a variety of photographers.
DA: Tell me about NAKED.
CH: When Meredith Gray was diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer, this time with a more aggressive form of the disease than the first time, she decided to have her struggles documented in a film and photo project.
Meredith wanted to use her situation to help other women that had breast cancer or would get that diagnosis in the future. She wanted to show the process of treating cancer, since women who get diagnosed don’t really know what’s in store for them, and she wanted to send out a positive message that there is a community and that you’re not alone with that disease. She also wanted to show that the beauty of a woman is not defined by her breasts, that a woman doesn’t have to define her femininity over her breasts. The mastectomy and the resulting change of self-image can cause tremendous difficulties and mental anguish for women.
I think having this project also helped Meredith during therapy. It occupied her and the production of it gave her something to focus on beside her illness.
Meredith wanted to give a message of hope, while showing what happens during the therapy and that was an approach I could really identify with.
DA: How did you meet Meredith?
CH: Meredith is a fashion stylist and when she got sick, she sent out an email to the photographers that she knew, among them Jack Deutsch, whom I assisted at the time. Jack thought that I would be perfect for that project and forwarded me the email. I sent Meredith some work and a link to my website and when we met we immediately clicked. We decided to do the project together after maybe 10 minutes.
DA: How did you approach the different shoots?
CH: The idea was that I would be there for every surgery and major medical treatment as well as for some key moments like buying a wig or her returns from the hospital. We also did several portrait sessions during that time. We had to negotiate with the hospitals and get model releases from the staff. We originally had permission to photograph the mastectomy but unfortunately the hospital people changed their mind. They weren’t comfortable with a photographer in the OR. Other than that the doctors and medical staff were extremely helpful and really embraced the project.
All in all we did between 10 and 15 shoots. Sometimes we would shoot over an entire weekend. I would take the train up to Meredith’s home in Connecticut and spend the evening before a surgery with her, than accompany her to the hospital and go back to her house when she returned home.
We spent so much time together that we quickly developed a comradery and friendship.
DA: What equipment did you use?
CH: I shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 5D. The lenses were a 24-70 mm, 2.8, a 70-200 mm, 2.8, and a 50 mm, 1.8. I used mostly daylight but I also shot with a bounced Canon Speedlight and occasionally used Dynalite strobes for the portraits.
DA: Did you work with an assistant?
DA: Why did you choose Black & White?
CH: Very early on, when Meredith and I talked about our vision for this project, we decided to present it in Black & White. We wanted to really concentrate visually on the essential parts of the story and we thought that color might be distracting.
DA: There was also a film documentary being made at the same time. How closely did you work with the film team?
CH: For the big shoots like the surgeries or when it came to get permits we worked as one team and I also made my photographs available for film stills.
A lot of times we kind of worked parallel to each other but a lot of times both Lisa Simmons (the director) and I worked alone with Meredith, too.
DA: What was the biggest surprise to you during the project?
CH: It was how strong Meredith was in dealing with the situation. Because of that strength, I never felt sorry for her.
We also laughed a lot and had a lot of fun, I didn’t really expect that.
DA: What did you do with this project so far?
CH: The biggest thing is probably that Meredith and I set up a Facebook Fanpage that developed into a community. We have now over 3100 fans. Our mission was to educate about breast cancer and to give courage to people who have the disease, and the fan page has been quite successful with that.
Some women shared their cancer stories on the page, some wrote to support Meredith or some to support each other. Overall we’re very happy with how that page developed.
One problem though with Facebook was that they banned some of my images because they showed nudity. And strangely nudity in the US seems to be defined by a woman’s nipples. So, the topless images before the mastectomy had to go, the topless images after the mastectomy and even the ones after she got her implants but hadn’t her nipples reconstructed yet, could stay on Facebook.
DA: How is Meredith now?
CH: The reconstructive surgeries are done, Meredith is cancer free and she’s doing well.
DA: Thanks a lot for the interview.
All images are in chronological order.
To see more of NAKED go to Claudia Hehr’s website and look for the “NAKED” tab.
All images in this post © Claudia Hehr.