There are countless events and activities being held around the world this month in support of breast cancer awareness, but none of them touches me as deeply as The Tutu Project.
Because no one close to me has ever dealt with breast cancer (knock on wood), and because I’m a man, it’s easy for me to assume this is not my battle to fight and to direct my charitable energies and donations elsewhere. But The Tutu Project, and its founder Bob Carey, remind me otherwise.
You’re probably familiar with Bob — he’s the stocky middle-aged guy who has been criss-crossing the country for the past decade, taking pictures of himself wearing little more than a pink tulle ballerina’s tutu in some of America’s most familiar settings.
The whole thing is as goofy as Monty Python, but it’s lunacy with a purpose.
Bob is a commercial photographer and his tutu images began in 2003 as part of a work assignment that evolved into an idiosyncratic way to express himself. It all became personal later the same year when his wife Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Bob continued to shoot his heartwarming tutu portraits as a way of cheering her up.
Linda wrote that her husband’s odd obsession was “a form of self-therapy, to be able step away from what had become our life, and to make me laugh.”
But Bob was clear in his purpose: to honor his wife, give her a little joy, maybe save her life. “During these past nine years,” he wrote, “I’ve been in awe of her power, her beauty and her spirit. Oddly enough, her cancer has taught us that life is good, dealing with it can be hard, and sometimes the very best thing — no, the only thing — we can do to face another day is to laugh at ourselves, and share a laugh with others.”
By the time The Tutu Project was officially launched in 2011 to raise money by selling prints, Bob had amassed a huge portfolio of awe-inspiring images in the series — and attracted media attention from around the globe. The photos were funny, inspiring and touched people very deeply; today, the project’s Facebook page is swamped with messages of support from nearly 60,000 friends.
Viewed collectively, the tutu portfolio is a uniquely American odyssey that reveals the many shifting moods of someone trying to keep it together while his closest loved one battles a cruel disease. He can be impish and energized, serious and contemplative, brooding or forlorn as he scans the horizon. Sometimes he’s purposeful and focused; sometimes he just looks lost. He’s always barefoot, usually solitary, and often on the go, a modern Don Quixote whose pink tutu has become a shield of faith.
Bob and Linda followed up last year by establishing The Carey Foundation as a registered charity to handle donations and direct the proceeds from print sales toward support groups that provide care and medical devices for breast cancer patients. A wonderful coffee-table book called Ballerina followed, collecting some of most memorable of the dozens of stirring images of Bob in all his unselfconscious glory, and last May the foundation celebrated its first anniversary with a gallery exhibition in New York.
This year, The Tutu Project was adopted by Bloomingdale’s (for the second time) as part of the retailer’s extensive efforts to support Breast Cancer Month. Bob has been visiting Bloomingdale’s stores across the U.S. for in-store promotions and book signings, and the chain will donate $1 for every like/share of a #BloomiesPink photo submitted to its Facebook page.
There have been numerous other milestones along Bob and Linda’s improbable journey. A partnership with the NFL last fall that saw Bob posing on the field at halftime. A tutu fundraising walk in Hoboken last year. An appearance with ballerinas rehearsing Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera. Even a desert photo (above) that went viral after someone noticed its (unintended) echoes of Breaking Bad.
And this Sunday (Oct. 27) Bob will live out every kid’s dream — in celebration of Breast Cancer Month, he’s been invited to be the guest ringmaster when the Big Apple Circus performs at the Lincoln Center.
Linda, meanwhile, is just as busy running the foundation and recently set up a Google+ group called #BCStrong that allows people to contribute their own breast cancer stories and inspirations with others. All this while managing her own treatment regimen.
There is an everyman quality about Bob, his work and his experience, something that anyone who has ever watched a loved one fight a serious illness will appreciate. On the surface, his pictures may seem like clownish stunts, but they are also richly symbolic and filled with meanings that reveal more truths the longer you look at them.
What are the messages that we see buried in these silly self-portraits?
Cancer is everywhere.
It is a lonely journey.
Nothing feels familiar anymore. There are no more comfort zones.
Pride and vanity have no place in healing.
Humor helps you get through this. And, yes, laughter is medicine.
You can’t do this alone, so talk about it, share your experience. Do anything other than nothing.
In spite of everything, life is fun … and funny.
And mostly: What’s a little sickness in a world filled with so much love?
[Below is a small sample of our favorite tutu images, all © Bob Carey. You can find detailed descriptions and behind-the-scenes stories on The Tutu Project website, blog and FB page. Most are available for purchase, with proceeds going toward the Carey Foundation.]