Sophie Mayanne Is Shifting Perceptions of Body Image With ‘Behind the Scars’

I came across the work of UK-based photographer Sophie Mayanne at precisely the right moment. I was in the throes of healing from a laparoscopic procedure when I noticed her Instagram feed full of photos of people just like me — people with scars. 

Words by Sara Radin

As I dug deeper and stalked her hashtag #BehindTheScars back several posts, I felt a wave of emotion come over me. This was not the typical kind of over-photoshopped fashion photography I was used to seeing in glossy magazines. Instead, her subjects present themselves boldly and unapologetically, proudly celebrating their scars and wearing them as if they were badges of honour. Additionally, Sophie pairs them with heartfelt captions written by the subjects themselves — the written accounts traced the lines of their relationship with their body while also revealing deeply personal details about their scar stories.

Sara’s portrait by Sophie Mayanne

Amidst Mayanne’s beautifully scarred subjects, there was one woman who had the same marks as me — an incision down her belly button and a small “x” on the right and left sides of her stomach. At a time when I felt incredibly disconnected from my body and the world around me, seeing these radically authentic photographs stuck with me. They gave me the strength I needed to see my own beauty in such a dark and vulnerable time. 

Fast forward eight months after I first discovered Mayanne’s work and had my surgery — I am sitting amongst a group of individuals waiting to pose for her on a rainy Sunday in late February. Sitting there, writing down my story in her book, I found myself reminiscing upon all that I had been through and overcome in the last year; how my surgery had ripped me open and brought me so much pain, how my healing process had repaired parts of me I didn’t know needed mending and how my scars had changed me for the better. 

Witnessing Mayanne’s photographs, and also posing for them, I can personally attest to the ways in which her work is breaking down stigmas around what society deems imperfections.

Sara Radin

Undressing myself and posing for the camera that day was a celebration of my body, a visual love letter to myself. It was the ultimate way of honouring my story, a final surrendering of seeing my scars as flaws, and in turn, accepting them as a necessary and an important part of my journey.

Witnessing Mayanne’s photographs, and also posing for them, I can personally attest to the ways in which her work is breaking down stigmas around what society deems imperfections. Interested in learning more about the mastermind behind the lens, I sat down with Mayanne to talk about the inspiration for Behind The Scars, the process for conducting it and the relationship between censorship and social media.

When did you first start practising photography and what do you like about it most? 

I first started taking photos the summer I finished college. So in 2012, the first photos I took weren’t particularly serious. I took on a “365 self-portrait a day” challenge, I believe these kinds of the project were trending on Flickr at the time, and I had seen one of my classmates do one too. From there, my photographic styled developed and grew and eventually, I turned my camera away from myself and on to others. For me, what I love about photography is the fact it can be so real. I was never able to create things that looked “real” in art. I was always much better at abstract things. 

What inspired you to start Behind The Scars? Did it stem from a personal experience? 

It doesn’t stem from a personal experience, instead it stems from a personal interest in flaws and what makes us different to one another. I was always told off as a kid for staring too much. Although I was never staring to be rude, I was always genuinely interested in the characteristics of other people. 

What’s your process for creating this body of work? Do you find people to shoot or do they reach out to you?

Mostly people reach out to me now, which works well as it’s such a sensitive subject — people may feel uncomfortable if I reached out to them directly. When I first started the project, I would post open castings. Instagram is an integral part of sharing the work and reaching new people who might like to take part. 

I try to keep the whole experience quite laid back, and as comfortable as I can. For many people, just the idea of stepping in front of a camera sends shivers down their spine — and that’s without revealing their scars.

Sophie Mayanne

This is some pretty sensitive content, and I’m sure there must be a lot of emotions involved. What is the experience of doing one of these shoots like? 

With regards to the shoot itself, I’m quite practical but sensitive at the same time! I do my best to treat everyone equally, and to create a photo that has a powerful impact to sit alongside the written story. People normally write their stories in exercise books on the day – so I don’t normally get emotional reading them until I’m back sat on my laptop and typing them up at home! 

It can also be pretty scary for someone to bare all in front of the camera, especially when they have trauma. Is there anything you do to make them feel calm or comfortable in front of the camera?

I try to keep the whole experience quite laid back, and as comfortable as I can. For many people, just the idea of stepping in front of a camera sends shivers down their spine — and that’s without revealing their scars. I think a lot of people also gear themselves up before coming to the shoots too and know that they will feel they have accomplished something by taking part. I think it’s important to keep the experience “normal” too. When I’m taking the photo, I try to position someone comfortably, where their scar is visible — but they are also very much visible too! When someone has their photo taken, I want the viewer to understand their personality, and then to see the scar afterwards. 

Are there any portraits you have that was especially moving for you? Have you kept in touch with any of your subjects? If so, have you noticed them evolve or transform at all after having their portrait taken?

Some of the people I have photographed I now call friends, and many stay in touch via Social Media — via comments or the odd DM. Some people have grown with the project and been photographed a few times too. It’s hard to pinpoint specific stories though, as each is so different and so personal to the next. 

What are the ultimate goals of this project?

Ultimately I would like to photograph 1,000 people in total and chronicle the series in the book. I know I have set myself a pretty big task with a number that high though! 

How many photos have you taken so far?

I think I’m on about 300! 

What has surprised you most about this project?

I think before doing this project, I never truly understood the power a single photograph can have. 

Can you share more about the censorship aspect of this project? I noticed you commented that Instagram removed the #BehindTheScars tag and a few photos have been taken down.

Instagram will be Instagram. Their guidelines are old-fashioned, and they do not understand skin can be art. They recently downloaded a photo of a 7-year-old girl with Downs I’d taken — citing that it did not meet community guidelines. How a 7-year-old’s stomach breeches guidelines is a mystery to me — but at the end of the day I don’t think humans monitor content on Instagram. I expect it’s probably a computer that decides — and how does a computer justify what is art and what isn’t? 

How can photography help raise consciousness about the body positivity movement?

Photography can help by being REAL. 

What does “being real” mean to you? What does that look like?

Real means unedited, as is, untouched, honest, raw, authentic. So by REAL, I mean photos that are actually real. 

What can we do to better represent people who don’t fit the traditional (and harmful) beauty ideals we see in mass media?

By being inclusive. By INCLUDING people in photographs – not just placing them in a photo to tick off criteria. 

Check out more of Sophie Mayanne’s work here and read more of Sara’s articles here