Cancer Sucks – Interview


All photography copyright, Ashley Savage,

In Memory of:

Kristen Tedder McDermott, aka TUTU


I first met showgirl, Tutu, when she was performing her schizophrenic Doris Day versus Courtney Love striptease routine at the notorious Madame Jojo’s nightclub, deep in the heart of Soho, London. We instantly became friends and have collaborated regularly since that time.

Sadly in 2009, Tutu discovered a lump in her breast, which was subsequently diagnosed as cancerous. This photographic project aims to document her battle with the disease from the onset of her treatment through to her death on 28th March 2012. The slideshow is in chronological order and shot in several locations, hospitals, studios and in Tutu’s London home. Also included are images from her last ever stage performance, which took place at the London club Duckie on 8th October 2011.

In engaging with this project, Tutu hoped to inspire and empower others suffering from similar trauma. She was insistent that all of the fluffy, pink breast cancer imagery was not the way to go, she wanted to show the disease for what it was in her experience. In an interview for the Guardian, Tutu states, “‘I learned to love breast cancer because it’s part of my body and it has taught me a lot about my life. But I also wanted to kick its ass”

Shortly before she died Tutu told me, ‘I love the fact that we are doing this project together, there was nothing else for it given the fact that you have documented so many aspects of my life for almost 20 years. Now that I know I may be dying, I realise that it’s not a perfect world, but you just have to get up, sing your song, keep your helmet on and things will get better. Things will always change, remember that. Things will be good, things will be bad. I am aware that my time here may be limited, but I would like this work to live on as a legacy, so I am happy for you to take it to the end”.

In line with Tutu’s last wishes, I am seeking funding to continue to promote and exhibit this work and would welcome contact from organisations or galleries able to assist me in this endeavour.

Ashley Savage.


The University of Liverpool’s New Thinking on ‘Living with Dying’ Research Network and DaDaFest 2012 are proud to be able to bring you the full digital exhibition of Ashley Savage and Tutu’s powerful Cancer Sucks project.

To gain more insights into the project, we secured an exclusive interview with Ashley and this is printed below in full. We ask you to take a look at the exhibition as well as the information below and if you have any further questions Ashley is here in person. 

Interview with photographer Ashley Savage

You have said that with this project Tutu aimed to inspire and empower others suffering from similar traumas. However, I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about the motivations behind the Cancer Sucks exhibition. Why was this specific set of images chosen?

Ashley: The Cancer Sucks exhibition was originally intended to be comprised of a set of 30 framed prints but due to the lack of available space at this venue it was decided that a slideshow may be more appropriate. When Tutu and I first discussed the project, we sought merely to document the treatment as a personal history of her trauma, but as we began to collate and peruse the images, we decided that they would merit wider exposure. In 2009, I had shown work at the Royal Society of Medicine, a series of portraits of disabled friends of mine so I thought that it would be possible to stage a similar exhibition documenting Tutu’s battle with cancer. As the amount of images grew and interest in the project intensified we agreed what we had produced was very different from the fluffy, pink, breast cancer images that seemed to abound. We were both determined to show images that truly represented what is basically a terrible disease.
When shooting, we did not plan ahead too much as it was impossible to do so realistically, it was more a question of me making time around the various hospital appointments so as to be able to include as many of the different treatment stages as possible.

This was also problematic in that permission had to be obtained to shoot within the hospital and this was not always easy to do. Most of the staff however readily embraced what we were doing and were more than happy to be included.

I can remember one occasion when I was waiting with Tutu for her radiotherapy treatment session in a waiting room full of sad, tired and nervous looking patients. Suddenly Tutu removed a Viking helmet from her bag and placed it on her head. Immediately the energy in the room changed, people began a dialogue about what we were doing and the response was incredibly positive. It was this response that made us all the more insistent that the work should be shown in the hope that it would inspire others to consider documenting whatever was going on in their lives too.

Having said that, it is important to remember that Tutu is a performer so being in front of the camera was natural for her. As soon as the camera came out, Tutu could not help but come alive however bad she was feeling. Obviously not everyone would choose to document personal trauma in such a performative way.

In terms of working together, Tutu understood my insecurities and I hers, so the process seemed relatively normal, though looking back I can see that this was not really the case. As soon as we realised that she was not going to survive, the work took an a different identity and focus and became more difficult to produce as her energy levels were dropping drastically due to the amount of medication she was given. Towards the end, she encouraged me to take the project through to its finality, and not shy away from representations that may be disturbing as she thought it was imperative not to sugar coat the images as often happens in these cases.

In choosing the images for the slideshow, I just went with what I thought were the most iconic when taken from the hundreds we had done but there are others that could also have been included. They are in chronological order so as to show the treatment stages and some are happy, some are sad, they just are what they are. They represent Tutu, in life and in death.

In her interview with The Guardian Tutu suggested that recording the stages of cancer through photographs was a kind of cathartic process. Why do you think this was the case and what is it about photography in particular that can facilitate this process?

Ashley: I think for Tutu, documenting this battle was one of the few positives given the situation, as it gave her a focus and a goal. She was constantly thinking about and planning the next shoot which kept her motivated and allowed her artistic side to remain active which otherwise would not have happened.

Tutu loved being photographed, I have worked with her since 1994 and we always enjoyed spending time doing shoots. Photography opens up a visual dialogue between its participants and its audience and can facilitate a clearer understanding of a given situation or condition by allowing a retrospective view rather than relying merely on memory. Through my photographic practice, I am seeking to find beauty in places where others see only ugliness and pain and also to illustrate the fact that the condition of our bodies is a transient condition subject to constant change aside from merely the ravages of time.

From a personal perspective photography helps me to find a focus in my life as I have suffered from severe depression and anxiety attacks and other psychological conditions. Tutu knew that my mental health was in a bad way during the time that we were working on this project and she was aware that it was probably as therapeutic for me as it was for her, and she was correct in that assumption.

I believe photography as a therapy is much underused and undervalued in this country and I would endeavour in the future to engage in more projects that may harness its potential. I know it has saved my life on many occasions and it could hopefully do the same for others.

The pink ribbon is the emblem recognised as the representation of the fight against breast cancer. Tutu spoke of challenging the ‘pinkification’ of cancer. What was behind this?

Ashley: In challenging the ‘pinkification’ of breast cancer Tutu hoped to open up the possibility of a new dialogue which would address the real issues and emotions encountered by cancer sufferers, their families, their carers and the companies profiting from the disease. By feminising and glamorising breast cancer, corporations are more able to promote and profit from the disease without realistic representations or acknowledgment of its impact. She wanted no part of this.

Tutu sought to represent the reality that was hers, without compromise. She wanted to show cancer for what it was, or could be, in some extreme cases. She wanted to explore the physical and psychological ravages and trauma she endured, and this to her, was far from pink and pretty. At the same time, we both realised that by doing so, we would alienate the majority of cancer charities and organisations as the imagery we were producing were far removed from the representations generally chosen.

Having said that, a lot of the images in the Cancer Sucks series have a beauty of their own, a beauty in ‘otherness’, which we hoped would have impact on the viewer in a multidimensional way and in doing so challenge and subvert preconceptions. Whether or not we have succeeded in this endeavour is up to the viewer to decide.

Interviewers: Dr Nedim Hassan and Dr Janet Price

Special thanks to Ashley Savage

New Thinking on ‘Living with Dying’ Website

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