By: John S. Forrester for New Balance
Posted on September 16, 2014
In the photo, a nearly naked Bob Carey stands in the middle of a snow-covered city street, barefoot and pointing gracefully like a ballerina. Around his hairy belly, he wears a bright pink tulle tutu.
In another, Carey stands in a pasture eyeing the cow whose eyeing him: a nearly naked and hirsute man, dressed only in a fuchsia tutu.
There are about 200 other similar scenes located around the United States, Germany, Italy and other countries over the past decade. Carey photographs himself in the bright-pink tutu against desolate landscapes, against the spray of the sea, in the middle of a highway divider. His images are sometimes moving, sometimes comedic.
And they are all targeted at breast cancer.
“I think laughter can be very healing. It’s an emotion that you’re just letting everything out. Why not laugh instead of always thinking about what’s really going on?” Carey says. “I think laughter has kept Linda going a lot and also this project.”
Linda is Carey’s wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. Coping meant hitting the road and photographing himself clad only in a pink tutu. Known as The Tutu Project, the pictures went viral in the past few years and the couple became internationally known.
Bob and Linda married in 1988 and worked together building a commercial photography business. Shortly after the couple moved from Arizona to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2003, Linda was diagnosed. Bob began taking the tutu with him on trips for his photography clients. Stopping periodically on the side of the road and other isolated locations, he’s strip down to a pair of pink gym shorts, don the tutu and snap a quick picture of himself.
“I started making the pictures to pretty much take care of myself and do my own self-therapy,” explains Bob. “Linda and I work together, so it was helping her, too.”
When she was feeling well enough, Linda traveled with him and helped shoot the photos.
“All of that was a really great outlet. I didn’t think about anything,” said Linda. “I didn’t think about what was happening to me. We just had fun.”
Over time, Bob’s tutu-clad body was captured in cornfields, in parking lots, on beaches, amid a herd of cows, and other simple, yet powerful backgrounds, and a collection was amassed. What started as a simple, personal way to cheer up his wife and himself blossomed into something bigger when Linda was rediagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2006.
“When my cancer came back, he had a good sized body of work by that time. As he would shoot, I would take them into chemotherapy with me,” said Linda. “And it was great. It’s boring to sit there for four or five hours just to get chemo, especially if I’m feeling OK. So I’d start talking to the women around me and show the images and they would share their stories with me.”
The reaction of other women in treatment made Bob and Linda realize that the images were more than just a hairy man in a pink tutu.
“It made them laugh. It was introspective and they could see themselves in these big vast environments, kind of all alone.” said Bob. “There’s a lot of emotions going on in them that they can translate into what they’re going through, and what I could see Linda going through as a woman and as my partner.”
“It’s just you do whatever you can to alleviate reality.”
Thinking that others suffering breast cancer might benefit from a laugh, the couple published Ballerina in 2012. Raising money by selling prints and T-shirts on their website, thetutuproject.com. Book proceeds and web donations are fed into The Carey Foundation, a non-profit set up by Bob and Linda to help provide breast cancer patients with transportation, wigs, childcare, counseling and other support services.
Now over a decade into her struggle against breast cancer, Linda runs the business end of the family photography business, oversees The Tutu Project and sales of the book and runs the couple’s charity.
“I have metastatic breast cancer and I’m still living my life. That’s what I want to impart to women,” Linda said. “I don’t want to ever tell them it’s easy, but it’s definitely doable.”
The book generated national and international media attention, from television appearances to viral web news. Linda and Bob recently appeared in a series of commercials on German television, and the Tutu Project’s Facebook page has more than 193,000 likes. With the exposure came a number of people who were inspired by both the images and their story of survival.
“They’re [Tutu Project’s fans] really very passionate about this because they see this as a love story and its inspiration and hope,” explains Linda. “I’m really a medical miracle. I have a very aggressive form of cancer, and I’m doing well.”
With the spread of the images and the Carey’s story came an outpouring of support from wide and far. Bob and Linda said they regularly receive letters and email from people around the world who are inspired by the pictures.
“It started out just people with breast cancer and then it turned into people with just cancer and then some people that have depression,” said Linda. “And then we’ve had quite a few people just say, ‘Hey, you know what, I don’t have cancer and I’m feeling good, but I really liked your pictures because they make me feel happy.”