Edmonton photographer finds the beauty under the scars

Joy Zylstra hates to have her picture taken, mostly because of the burns on her skin, but on this day she’s rocking to metal music while a photographer takes pictures.

'When I see those scars ... I realize ... I'm lucky enough to still be me'

Joy Zlystra lets loose in this photo from the Scars Project. (Lorna Dancey Photography)

Joy Zylstra hates to have her picture taken.

Mostly because of her burns.

But on this day she's rocking to metal music, while a photographer takes pictures.

"I still worry about people judging me," said Zylstra. "That's why I needed to do this."

This is called the Scars Project, a series of photographs that focus on the scars of seven people, photos that try to show the beauty of the human beings behind those scars.

Lorna Dancey takes pictures of Michelle Shaeffer in her home studio for the Scar Project. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

The photographer, Lorna Dancey, encouraged her subjects to show emotions they may hide from others. In one session, she asked Zylstra to show her pain, triggering tears that revealed the vulnerable side the young woman tries to keep to herself, because she doesn't want people to think she's weak.

"They (scars) are your story, it's beautiful," said Dancey. "You're a survivor."

Dancey said her subjects should be celebrated for what they've overcome.

At the age of nine, Zylstra was camping in British Columbia with her family when she walked into a guest cabin unsupervised. She didn't realize the propane stove was leaking.

She lit a match to burn a candle. The propane explosion caused second- and third-degree burns to her face, arms, legs and back.

Since then, she has been dealing with the judgement of others.

"Just being physically different from everyone in my life was really hard," said Zylstra. "Sometimes, when I would take the LRT, people wouldn't sit next to me. That brings pain, which makes this project so important."

Michelle Schaeffer exposes the masectomy scars on her chest, which she refers to as symbols of survival. (Lorna Dancey Photography)

Dancey posted the photos on Facebook and has since had interest from other people who want to pose for the series. She plans to have a photo exhibition within a year.

"People are really resonating with the stories that these amazing participants are telling, the vulnerability they're showing and the strength that they're showing."

Michelle Schaeffer's body was draped in a gown while she smiled for Dancey's camera.

Schaeffer, a flight attendant, has scars on her chest from a mastectomy, the result of a breast cancer diagnosis last year. While posing, she said, she felt beautiful.

"It may have stolen certain parts of me physically but who am is still me. When I see those scars, it's what I realize. I'm lucky enough to still be me."

By posing for the camera, Schaeffer said she hopes to inspire  other women who have undergone mastectomies.

"There's something in those pictures that tell a story. It doesn't just inspire me, it inspires other women, which is kind of the goal of what I want these pictures to do."