Ami Barwell: A body of work from the heart

Photographer Ami Barwell.
Photographer Ami Barwell.
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She is best-known as a music photographer, but now Ami Barwell tells Phil Penfold why her own mother’s experience of breast cancer has taken her in a new direction.

However, now the Hull-born 39 year old, who was handed her first camera before she had even reached her teens, is now taking her work into new territories.

“Music is great,” she says. “But at the beginning of the year I decided that I wanted a specific project, something which had a depth to it”.

Ami’s own mother Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and underwent a mastectomy. Now 69, Sue thought her problems were behind her, but when the cancer returned 15 years later she had to have a second mastectomy.

“Being the sort of woman that she is, she’s bounced back. Because of her I have always been aware of the scourge of cancer, but it came as a complete eye-opener to me that, when I asked a good number of female friends if they regularly checked for lumps and bumps, most of them answered, ‘No’.”

The seeds of Ami’s latest project were sown and she tentatively went online to see if any women who had been through breast cancer might like to pose for a portrait.

“I was completely astounded by the response,” she says. “By tea-time, I had scores of replies from right across the UK. All were saying ‘YES! Let’s go for it. I was overwhelmed, and, I admit, more than a bit emotional.”

Without any sponsors, and completely self-funded, Ami began to arrange photoshoots.

“I simply couldn’t afford to cover their travel expenses to York, but many of them told me, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll be there’. A lot of those who took part are from Yorkshire, but there are others from as far away as Bristol, Norfolk and London. All of them, without exception, are wonderful, and I cannot show them enough gratitude.”

While researching the project, Ami realised that if you googled the words ‘breast cancer’, the images which pop up on screen are often rather gruesome.

“They are fine for medical students and doctors, but for anyone like me, well, to say that they are not encouraging is an understatement.”

Nineteen women are featured in the finished project, which has now been picked up by Cancer Research, and is released in collaboration with them. There are 39 images, and each is featured during October as part of Breast Cancer Awareness and Stand up to Cancer Month.

She says: “Some of the feedback I’ve had has moved me to tears. I hope people will see women who are now strong again, and confident – but I also wanted to pull up the viewers, and to make them think and, I hope, re-assess their own situations.

“Some of the images are pretty harrowing, I agree, but they are, a true reflection of these women, and each of them is happy with what they show. Not one of them said to me ‘I can’t allow you to use that’.”

Following the October campaign, Ami would like to take the portraits on a touring exhibition. “It would be great to hear from spaces who would like to show these portraits for a few weeks, or a month, and if anyone is interested, please do get in touch. There is a huge audience out there for them, and I am already exploring a lot of ideas about people I could approach. To have them up in a Yorkshire gallery would be so rewarding for me – and the ladies – and it will get the message out to an even wider audience. So here I am – please contact me”.

Being the sort of get-up-and-go person she is, Ami has yet another project simmering on the back burner.

“Next, I’d like to undertake a study of prisoners and of prisons. Portraits that tell of the life inside. That’s going to be a difficult one to pull off, but I’m already making some progress with contacts. It will be another series that I would like to also see as a touring exhibition – that’s where I can feel my work is going. Why the change in my career? You know, I’m 40 next year. I love life, I love meeting people – but maybe, I’ve just grown up?

“Certainly, the breast cancer campaign has given me the best sense of achievement I’ve ever had. I really mean that. Each of the ladies has a courage and a strength that I cannot even begin to comprehend and it was a real privilege to get to know them and to photograph them.

“I’ve loved every second of my time with the great folk in the music industry, and I shall continue to work with them, but I’ve realised that it is all largely pretty much ephemeral. So, for the first time in my career I felt that I had a sense of true purpose, and that my work really meant something.”

To view more images from Mastectomy go to Ami’s website at musicphotographer.co.uk or for further information go to standuptocancer.org.uk