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John Keatley photographs Melissa Thompson and her daughter, Poppy, via FaceTime. (Photo courtesy of John Keatley)

“Behind the Screens” of BCRF’s 2020 Research Is the Reason Initiative

How we safely photographed and interviewed 14 women and men impacted by breast cancer

Each year, BCRF features stories from real people impacted by breast cancer as part of our annual storytelling initiative, Research Is the Reason.

As we were putting together this year’s initiative, the word “coronavirus” started popping up in news headlines. It became clear very quickly that our plans needed to change for the safety of participants, some of whom were in treatment, and BCRF’s New York City-based staff.

To capture photos, BCRF partnered with John Keatley, a photographer who had previously experimented with iPhone portraits and, in March, began using FaceTime to shoot a “Quarantine Portraits” series.

"At first, it seemed like there would be many constraints to creating this way, but now that I am seven months into it, I'm in love with everything about this process," John said.

John said he was thrilled to use this approach to photography on behalf of BCRF's mission. Because his method is entirely virtual, it allowed him, for example, to photograph Gladys, a breast cancer survivor in Detroit, from where he lives in Seattle.

"The people I have met have been so gracious and inspiring," John said. "There was a lot of laughter on the calls, and I felt a connection with all of the subjects. Just knowing these images have the potential to play some part in funding research, bring people hope, and help find a cure is fulfilling."

Overseeing safe and socially distanced video filming proved trickier, but our longtime partners at Maiden Creative, Josh Zimmerman and Krista Liney, a breast cancer survivor, got creative. A team set up all the necessary camera equipment—lights, camera, microphones, a laptop—on a cart that a masked, on-site assistant wheeled to participants’ homes and left sanitized outside their front doors. The only other thing cast members had to touch was a sanitized wireless microphone they clipped on their lapels. Everything else was ready to go on the cart or controlled remotely.

“There are so many connection points and signal chains where issues can arise with this process,” Josh said. “We were stretching the remote technology beyond the limits of what it was originally designed to do.”

Josh directed the video remotely via Zoom from Nashville and Krista monitored from Los Angeles.

“While the technical hurdles of remote shooting were prevalent, and somewhat expected, not being able to speak with our subjects in person impacted us on personal level,” Krista said of the biggest challenge this project presented. Josh noted that having several layers of technology between the team and the participants took some getting used to.

Still, Maiden and BCRF found a few ways to put participants at ease and make a virtual experience more special. BCRF staff members joined in on Zoom to offer feedback and come together to see the filming in action—as did Josh and Krista’s dog, Buddy, who, Josh joked, “is very skilled at begging for treats” as soon as a call or Zoom begins.

“Every person who shares their story has a unique perspective and a different experience that demonstrates how deeply breast cancer is felt in our families and communities,” Josh said. “It is very difficult to undertake any kind of remote production, but it is worth it when you know the work is going to support a worthy cause.”

You can find our #ResearchIsTheReason stories as we post them here, and follow us on Instagram at @BCRFCure for more “behind the screens” content.

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60 East 56th St., 8th Floor

New York, NY 10022

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