Let’s meet up with… SUZANNE REITSMA

Last year Dutch photographer Suzanne Reitsma received a Special Mention for her photo series ‘Replace She with He’ of male breast cancer patients. The stories of these men, who suffer in silence, are little known outside the medical community. Reitsma photographed these men to raise awareness for this topic and incite a debate. Recently having moved to Denmark with her partner and daughter, she tells us her love for photography, the impact these men had on her and changing perceptions of gender.



How did you start as a photographer?


I enjoyed photography from a young age, so much so that in 2011 I decided to study it. Combining that with my job didn’t work, so I quit my job and started working part-time so I could focus on my studies. Previously I had studied cultural anthropology and medical anthropology, and I was working in healthcare, but I wasn’t using my anthropology studies anymore. It was while studying that I realized that the interest I had in people and cultural differences was easier to put into photos, so I could merge my different interests into my photography.


How did you first come across this silent problem of male breast cancer?


Well, that too was a combination of factors. While making the series I worked for a breast cancer research group. While working there, I learned there was a research program for breast cancer in men. I didn’t know that men got breast cancer as well, so I looked into it. In all, about 1% of breast cancer patients are men, which in The Netherlands amounts to 16,000 women per year and a hundred men, so it is quite rare.

Back when I was studying anthropology I did research on domestic violence with male victims, who were abused by their wives. This too was something that no one knows about, but there is quite a large number of them really. If they try to look for help they have a hard time finding it. When I learned about men with breast cancer I immediately noticed the similarities with people who say: “oh, that’s something for women, but you’re a man”. Both groups meet with little consideration.


So you had the same presumptions about men who suffered from breast cancer?


Yeah, I was surprised at first. For women, having your breast removed (mastectomy) is considered a trauma. You might think that for men it’s just a scar, not a big issue. Perhaps it’s not a trauma for them, but it is sensitive nevertheless. Men often don’t wear a shirt in summer time, and this makes them quite shy. Women can cover it up, hide it. Men can’t. They are seldom given the option of plastic surgery, an option that is always offered to women.

What’s also hard is when you’re in the hospital waiting room with your wife and the doctor’s assistant calls for Mrs. […], just assuming that it will be the woman who’s there for treatment. All the information you get is aimed at women as well, so they are told that chemotherapy may cause them to stop menstruating. Not exactly relevant information for a man. So apart from cancer these men also have to deal with an assault on their masculinity.


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How did you meet these men who participated in your series?


It’s really hard to find them. At first I looked online, through websites of patients’ associations but those are mainly read by women. Men tend to just go through it by themselves. So I had to ask the doctors I knew from the research program to put me in touch with men who were willing to participate. If I hadn’t worked with the breast cancer group, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.


One of the subjects has unfortunately died since you took his portrait. How do you think that has changed the impact of that photo?


When he was photographed he said that he wanted more people to know, wanted to raise awareness of breast cancer in men. To commemorate him, his portrait is usually one of the first images that I send to organizations like the Pink Ribbon, which asked if they can use the photo for fundraising (see below). I know that he and his family would be proud that even after his death he can still raise money and help this cause. He was the youngest one of the group and he had two young children but he was so full of energy and he wanted to fight it!





Was it difficult to convince the men to pose for the images or were they willing?


They were already willing, as they had chosen to contact me. We always had an hour or more to get to know each other before doing the shoot in their own homes. They were happy to tell their story, which they don’t do very often, and we still keep in touch. Especially now that the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam and the UMC Utrecht are making a website for men with breast cancer. They decided to do this because there is little information available for men and they often come in for treatment only at a late stage.


Stylistically there’s little to join the images together. The locations vary; the poses vary. What was the intent behind this stylistic choice?


They are photographed in their own homes. I did experiment with a studio environment, but I found that the scars became too prominent against a white background. You already know they have breast cancer. I would rather show more about where they live and who they are. Asking them to assume the same pose would also have drawn too much attention towards the scar, which I didn’t want. I wanted to portray the person, not the disease.


Both this project and your previous research feature men in a minority role. What attracts you in this topic?


My generation doesn’t have to fight for women rights any more, but my mothers’ generation did. She really raised me to take care of myself, and earn my own upkeep. Yet it’s not quite so black-and-white. I wanted to go one step further and show situations in which men find little recognition.




Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.


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