Sophie Mayanne documents scars and the stories of beauty, pain, struggle, and achievement behind them – some of which are being told for the first time
Last summer, 24-year-old British photographer Sophie Mayanne shot an editorial for independent art and fashion magazine Petrie, titled “Behind The Scars”. With a background spent working on fashion and portrait photography, Mayanne stepped away from capturing conventional beauty, instead turning her raw and unedited style of photography to the things that make us unique. Fast-forward a year and Mayanne has documented the scars of over 60 people, some of some of whom unveiled their skin publicly for the first time.
By exploring the scars, flaws and imperfections that make people unique, Mayanne is celebrating the obstacles, battles and achievements that come as part and parcel of each individual’s journey. Not only is each scar different, the reaction to them is too. “I think it’s simply the story, both physically and emotionally that draws me to imperfections, and why society considers them so,” explains Mayanne. “Perceptions of scarring in particular, and the reactions they incur.”
With the sensitivity of the subject in mind, Mayanne has spent much time speaking to the people she photographs about their scars, the story behind them – whether through accidents, ill-health or damage from another – and the emotions they unfold. “They are raw, honest and sometimes painful to read,” explains Mayanne. “Each story is handwritten in an exercise book during the shoot, in which the model can choose to write as little or as much as they like.”
From Ronnie who bears a scar on his stomach from an operation on his oesophagus at the age of just six months, to Isabella who suffered burns from being trapped in a house fire at the age of 15 – each story is a journey of self-discovery and acceptance, a lesson in embracing the differences that make you, you.
Accompanied by the release of 12 unseen photographs and stories, we spoke to Mayanne about the project, interpretations of beauty and the medium of skin, before hearing from the subjects of the images themselves.
What made you start the Behind the Scars project?
Sophie Mayanne: As a photographer the first images you take are raw and untouched. My interest in flaws and imperfections was first triggered by these types of images.
How have you gone about selecting the people that you feature?
Sophie Mayanne: The series is conducted on a voluntary basis – the images have been shared via social media and people have been coming forward to express their own interest in being involved in the series after seeing these. We don't turn anyone away. For many of these people it has taken an awful lot of courage just to contact us and it has proved to be the next step in them starting to love themselves.
What have you learnt from these people through the project?
Sophie Mayanne: The uniqueness of every story is what makes the project so special. They are raw, honest and sometimes painful to read, but there’s often a simple acceptance or the shrug of a shoulder that signifies someone shaking off the past. Each story is handwritten in an exercise book during the shoot, in which the model can choose to write as little or as much as they like.
And how have your images been received?
Sophie Mayanne: The response has been so positive from day one. I’ve had emails from across the globe from people who are keen to share their stories with me and others whose confidence has been boosted and now have the courage to bear their scars, often for the first time.
“I don’t think beauty is definable. It’s complex. No two opinions are ever the same” – Sophie Mayanne
What is it that draws you to skin as a vehicle for storytelling?
Sophie Mayanne: Skin is sensitive and will show the slightest mark, be it a tiny bruise from knocking into a wall, a paper cut, or the neat silver line created by a surgeon's hand. It’s always flawed, so it’s what makes us different – that’s what I find fascinating. It’s also constantly changing as we grow and it’s the first thing that others see and judge us upon. I think it’s simply the story, both physically and emotionally that draws me to imperfections, and why society considers them so. Perceptions of scarring in particular, and the reactions they incur. I also see the beauty in being different.
Are there any particular photographers that inspire your work?
Sophie Mayanne: I love Nan Goldin and Corinne Day, but in my own work I tend to look to those around me for inspiration, even from a young age I was always fascinated by people wherever I went. Creating a connection with the person being photographed is so important for me too.
How do you personally interpret beauty?
Sophie Mayanne: I don’t think beauty is definable. It’s complex. No two opinions are ever the same. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Anybody and everyone can be beautiful, and anyone and everyone IS beautiful. It’s the interpretation of what is regarded as beautiful that we need to change.
Lastly, how long can we expect to see the Behind the Scars project continue?
Sophie Mayanne: At the moment, I have no definitive end date, but I did set myself a goal of photographing 1,000 different people to really embody as much diversity as I possibly can.
“I received this scar after being bitten by a spider while I was travelling in India. After the bite happened, while asleep, there was only a feeling of tingling and numbness, but no apparent bite wound. The bite unfortunately developed into an abscess which required surgery when I returned to the UK a couple of weeks later. The wound ended up 6cm deep and 3cm wide. I caught a rare strain of MRSA whilst receiving treatment in the UK, which delayed my recovery for more than a year. To begin with, I did not like the scar, but eight years on, I very much like it, and enjoy having it as part of me.”
“I’ve always had scars since as long as I can remember. Acne scars. As I went through puberty I had irregular periods which made me decide to go to the doctors and they found a 12cm cyst on my ovaries. They did emergency key hole surgery, and when I saw the scars I was horrified. I thought I’d never be able to wear a bikini and at the age of 18, that felt like a big thing. Now I’m 22, I’ve gotten over it. I’m quite open about the fact I have PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) and I feel like it’s just become a part of who I am rather than a secret. I am more open to showing my scars to people now, and they definitely don’t stop me going to the beach in a bikini anymore. I decided it would be good to be a part of this series, as everyone has scars, and a story behind them.”
“Operation scar on ankle – when I was 12 I went to a rock climbing party for my friend’s birthday. The instructor didn’t attach the ropes properly to me, and I fell 21 feet as I went to abseil down. I broke my wrist and ankle. I had to spend a week in hospital, and three months in a wheelchair, which gave me an insight into how people on the street are when you are disabled. Self-harm scars – I have been struggling with anxiety, depression and self harm since I was 14, and showing my scars makes me feel less ashamed of them. Knee scars – I’m very clumsy, and I fall over a lot, which means I constantly have grazed knees.”
“I had a hydatid cyst on my liver, and had the surgery when I was 14. That year was definitely not my year. From what I know about it, it was a tapeworm that I probably got from playing with dogs and not washing my hands after. I read that it grows 2-3cm per year, and mine was 8-9cm when I had the surgery, so quite big. It did bother me in the beginning, but I remember one day my brother told me that it looks really cool and it makes my belly special. I think that’s when I started liking it. I wouldn’t change it, or the experience for nothing. It was hard going through it (hospital, eating yoghurts for two weeks, not being allowed to shower or getting out of bed by myself), but it made me stronger.”
“I’ve had 15 surgeries, a brain tumour, a punctured intestine, an obstructed bowel, a cyst in my brain and a condition called hydrocephalus. I grew up never realising my body was different until one day I wore a bikini and was met with looks of pity and shock. I thought the solution was to hide them and never talk about them, but in fact, what helped was the exact opposite. When I was 21, I finally started embracing my scars and accepting my body for what it does. In celebration of that, I wore a bikini for the first time and launched a campaign called ‘Scarred Not Scared’ because I knew I couldn’t be alone. I didn’t want anyone to feel isolated in their struggles with physical illness and chronic pain, and it became the perfect platform to remove the shame around our scars and our bodies in general.”
“The scars relate to different stages in my life: my childhood and womanhood. Animals seem to figure in a few; getting too close to a dog whilst it was feeding led to a small scar on my face, luckily it folds into the creases of my smile (occurred age eight). I’m now 41, I battled with ill health for many years, these led to scars around my belly button. Two hernia ops and my belly button is now as flat as a pancake. Having a laparoscopy for endometriosis should have left no scars, but an over zealous horse ran into me creating a bug shaped scar. The slow healing I now know is due to Lupus, my connective tissue is constantly inflamed, causing sore scar tissue.”
“I was born just after the war in 1948. In East London at this time there were many bombed-out houses. Whilst playing I fell, and landed on a broken bottle, this went through my mouth. All through my school days, I was teased every day. As I reached my late teens I was able to grow a moustache to try and conceal it. All through my life I have been aware of my scar, and have found it very unsettling. Thankfully as you get older, the ageing process takes over. Now my life has completely transformed, thanks to my scar. I am now a leading model and actor and clients are buying my scarred look, so it turned out very well in the end. My scar is now my fortune.”