A laughing child, with a scar across her left forearm, covers her eyes.

Behind the Scars

Do you have any scars? How do you feel about them? In a world where social media wraps ‘the perfect image’ around us like an outfit that we feel we are expected to wear; how do our scars affect how we see ourselves? Do you hide them or are you proud of them? There is a new and welcome need to see more real people and real bodies alongside the often unobtainable ideals of beauty. Commercial images are beginning to embrace diversity and celebrate authenticity – the perception of beauty is changing and expanding.

British photographer Sophie Mayanne’s personal project ‘Behind the Scars’ has never been more relevant. For the last two years, she has captured portraits of people and their scars, speaking candidly to her subjects about how the scars got there. The result is an incredible insight into stories which are often hidden. Sophie’s project uses the stories of skin to touch upon compelling tales of humanity. Some are sad, some are empowering and others are filled with strength, but all ask questions; Can we move on after tragedy? Does it leave us broken or can it make us stronger? ‘Behind the Scars’ is a celebration of what it means to be human.

A young woman with blonde, curly hair, displays a scar on her right arm.
Miriam:“When I was 9, I fell off a swing on holiday and broke my arm quite badly. My scar doesn’t bother me at all, I forget it is there until someone else brings it up.”

Initially a fashion photographer, Sophie was frustrated with the limitations of casting and wanted to tell more human stories. "Yes, fashion models are beautiful and they look great in clothes, but real people do too.” But it was when she met Nicholas, a model, that her deep fascination with scarring began. Nicholas was stabbed by a samurai sword and fell into a coma for six months. His recovery was lengthy and he had to learn to walk again, but eventually made a full recovery and was discovered as a model. "That was the first time I spoke with anyone about their scars. I was so fascinated about how scars work, how they happened and his emotional connection with them.” This sparked the beginning of ‘Behind the Scars’ and she has since photographed over 250 people. The images are intimate and vulnerable, perhaps hard to view at times, but they hold truth and complete honesty.

However, it was only when one of her early photographs from this series went viral, that Sophie realised the potential impact of the project and its power to connect people. Fast forward two years and the project has its own Instagram page and community. Word of mouth has been incredibly powerful, and as a young content creator, she has naturally embraced social media to build the project, do her casting, and share her images. She has gained an incredible amount of attention from newspapers and press such as Vogue, Elle, Glamour, i-D and Dazed, as well as appearing on UK television. As brands discovered her images from the project, she was invited to shoot campaigns for Dove and Mothercare.

A man, facing away from the camera, with heavy scarring on his bare back.
Arnaud: “I was born with giant birth marks all over my body. They were removed by surgical excision and skin grafts. My scars used to be my weakness. Today they are my pride and strength and I love them”© Sophie Mayanne
A brown-haired woman, wearing a V-neck top and gold necklace has a large keloid scar on her chest.
Anita: “I wish I could say that I have accepted it as part of my body. I wish I could say that I feel confident enough and bold enough to not worry about what other people think – but I do.” © Sophie Mayanne
A woman with back turned to the camera, has heavy scarring on her back and face.
Raiche: “My scars are like beauty spots. They are not something to be ashamed or embarrassed by. Attitudes to people with differences are changing, and by sharing my story I want you all to know that being different is what makes you most beautiful.” © Sophie Mayanne
A woman in a red roll-neck sweater and earrings. She has no hair and a thin scar stretching from behind her ear and over her head.
Emeline: “Brain surgery was all consuming at first but now I genuinely forget it happened because I’m so worried about my chemo. I’m proud of my scar though and how my life has changed since.” © Sophie Mayanne

How does she manage to capture such personal portraits? "It’s all about gaining trust – you are capturing people in their most vulnerable moments. This is something that has come over time,” she explains. “I used to be quite shy and a little socially awkward, so meeting different people has allowed me to grow in terms of my confidence and connect with other humans on a deeper level. I always want to be respectful and ensure people are comfortable.

In the beginning, I was quite nervous myself, but now I'm full of confidence – and I have a tendency to make the people in front of my lens also feel more confident. And they come in knowing the project and the impact it is having, so they often are already mentally prepared and eager to take part. It's all about creating a safe environment. I will always have music on and quite often I also have my dog there. Some people turn to mush as soon as they see a dog. I usually have an assistant helping me, and sometimes she’ll blow air into people’s hair, which normally makes people laugh."

One might wonder why people would want to show their scars. Sophie believes that, for those who have been through tragedy, having their photo taken and feeling beautiful has given them new confidence and can play a part in accepting what has happened to them. Many grew up without seeing images of people having scars like them, and they want others to see that they are not alone. Some want to feel beautiful and brave. “A lady called Barbara came to me in 2017 and just before I photographed her, she told me that her cancer was terminal, and she wanted to turn her scars into art. That was the first time it hit me emotionally, knowing that she had limited time left, but she chose to spend some of it with me to create these images. Her images are beautiful and peaceful, and she did pass away the following year. There is something really powerful in that – people are giving their time and trusting me to do this."

A head and shoulders portrait of Sophie Mayanne accompanied by the words "These photos are not mine, even though I am capturing them"

Sophie would love ‘Behind the Scars’ to expand and continue to make an impact. "The photos could still be so important in the future to someone, they might discover them and feel like they are not alone. I would love to turn it into a book, so I’m thinking of ways to do that. I like the idea of images in print. I love the idea of books being found in someone’s attic - dusted off and read after years of storage. Images are timeless. These photos are not just mine. Even though I am capturing them, they are also for other people and there is something beautiful about that".

Written by Cecilie Harris

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