Cancer Survivor’s Breast Sparks Controversy

Published: 3 December 2013

Country: USA

NYT_breast_cancer_photo_smallThe New York Times editors did not expect such a reaction when they chose a photo of a breast cancer survivor to illustrate an article on Israel’s high rate of genetic mutations. There had been some concerns prior sending it to print. However, the picture editor thought that a 28-year-old Israeli woman, showing her lumpectomy scars and a Star of David tattoo, would well accompany the story on the front page.

The image, far from being distressing, sparked debate as it shows a part of the young woman’s left nipple while hiding her face. The photo is neither vulgar nor offensive. On the contrary, it is artistic and beautiful – but not everyone liked the editorial choice.In the following days, many columnists asked whether the Times went too far by showing the partial female nipple, but harsh criticism came mainly from readers. Referring also to a previous first page photo of a girl’s lifeless body, a NYT reader commented: “these featured photographs of headless women, in quick succession, seemed more about selling the news by scandalizing and glamorizing women’s suffering. The pair of photos crossed a line for me — both ethically and aesthetically.”

As a backlash to the shocked reactions, a number of journalists recognised the value of the photo and expressed their blessing on Twitter.  “I’m going to say I like it,” stated on twitter Virginia Heffernan, journalist and former staff writer at the Times. The editor-in-chief of Circa, Anthony De Rosa, sarcastically tweeted:  “Saying a silent prayer for all those who were traumatized by seeing part of an areola on the cover of the New York Times. Stay strong.”

Little by little, the argument moved towards less beaten tracks. The question then turned from “is it appropriate to show a women’s breast on a front page?” into “is it appropriate to sexualise cancer?”

[Breast cancer] is a serious and deadly disease,” says Amanda Marcotte on Slate. It’s not just the nipple that sexualizes this picture. It’s the lighting and the tank top and the pose, which is reminiscent of a strip tease shot,” she continues referring to the way people focus on the loss of breasts, instead of the loss of health and life.

From the lines of the Columbia Journalism Review, Kira Goldenberg, survivor of breast-cancer, has a different opinion. The image is misleading, she believes. “There is nothing wrong with showing a breast cancer survivor as provocative, beautiful, and sexy, but breast cancer—and genetic mutations, the topic of the story—is none of these things.” As she explains, lumpectomies – shown in the woman’s torso – are used to remove a diagnosed, localized cancer. On the contrary, mitigating risk – that is what the NYT article focuses on – is often done by removing the majority of a woman’s breast tissue.

The much heated debate spurred the protagonist of the photo to speak out and respond to offended readers. The woman, who remains unnamed not to become famous because of cancer, does not find the photo either provocative or inappropriate: “I thought it was powerful and told my story – I am a proud, young Jewish woman who had breast cancer […] Most of my breast was not exposed and the small part that was does not make the picture ‘cheap’. I think it’s very artistic.” In the end, she says, there are positive aspects coming from such a controversy: the much-needed awareness about breast cancer and genetic testing.