In 2003, at the age of forty-two, photographer Bob Carey and his wife, Linda, moved to Brooklyn from Arizona on a lark. “We sold everything,” Linda says. “We were kind of crazy,” Bob adds. But, during all the packing, there was one thing Bob didn’t part with: a tutu made of pink tulle that he’d worn in an ad for Ballet Arizona.
En route to Brooklyn, the couple stopped in New Mexico where Bob, ever the self-portrait photographer that he is, took a picture of himself wearing nothing more than the tutu and a pair of white socks. The spontaneity of the shoot was unfamiliar territory: “Normally, I shot only studio work,” Bob says of the impromptu outdoor shoot. Upon arriving to New York, he knew he had to explore the idea further. “I wanted to see what the project was about,” Bob explains, “to see if I liked it, to see what was happening.”
When on December 29th 2003 Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer, “Everything changed,” Bob recalls. During the next few years, Bob worked on the tutu series “just to take care of [himself], as self-therapy,” and brought the images to Linda while she underwent treatment. As she explains, “If your background is in art, you have a different insight into the photographs, but for these women who were getting hooked up to toxic chemicals, it was just a welcome break. The images made us laugh and took us out of our environment.”
Seeing the comforting effect the photographs had gave Bob the idea to create a book, and distribute it to every cancer center in the country. Unfortunately, the 2008 economic downturn made publishers reluctant to back up such a project, skeptical of its profitability. Bob and Linda were undeterred; they knew one thing—they had to get the images out there. They created a website, simply called thetutuproject.com, which quickly generated buzz. The New York Daily News ran a story on them; while Bob was out getting copies of the newspaper, Yahoo! called, asking to interview them too. Two hours after Yahoo! posted their article and some of Bob’s images, The Tutu Project had 400 more “Likes” on its Facebook page and emails started pouring in. That week, to handle and harness the mounting popularity of The Tutu Project, Bob and Linda hired a publicist to manage the press requests, and an attorney to get a non-profit status for the newly established Carey Foundation.
Things just snowballed after this. When a piece on The Today Show aired, they gained 13,500 “Likes” in just twelve hours. Linda and Bob are keen on the impact Facebook has had on the project’s reception and growing support base. “People post a story on our page and others will comment on it,” Lisa says; this dialogue has created an online community for cancer patients and their friends and family. People can also upload their portrait on The Tutu Project website’s “Honor Wall” (and yes, some of them rock a tutu). “Traditionally, the face of breast cancer is a woman,” Bob explains, but both him and Linda believe that this is quickly changing. “Men are becoming more public with their support,” Linda states.
The Tutu Project is finally in book form, fittingly titled Ballerina. On his hopes for the book, Bob states, “I don’t want it to be this precious little thing with only a few copies…I want anyone who is suffering with cancer to be able to see it.” After all, laughter might not cure you, but it always feels good to smile.
Ballerina, along with limited edition prints and t-shirts are available for sale on the site; donations can also be made there. Net proceeds are donated to breast cancer support organizations.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Resource Magazine, which is available online here.