All images by Ian Pettigrew. Used with permission.
Ian Pettigrew is an Art Director, and has always had an affinity for portrait photography. At 38 years old, he was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. To get people to learn more about the disease, he wanted to do a portrait project showcasing people who went through it. It’s called “Salty Girls” and though it had quite a tough start, Ian’s project became viral on the web and he’s even released a book of the portraits.
The project was designed to raise awareness of the disease amongst adults because most people used to be under 24 that had the disease. These days, folks get it in their 40s.
Ian talked to the Phoblographer about how he convinced so many women to help others with this project.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Ian: My dad was a shutterbug. As a kid he took all our family pics on Kodachrome. I have thousands of slides from the 60s till the late 80s. I worked (and still work) in advertising as an Art Director. As an AD I always loved the process of photography – that mix of artistry AND technical know-how.
Thats still what interests me, that mix. So many people just get that wrong.
Phoblographer: What got you into portraiture?
Ian: I’ve tried everything (like the Helsinki Bus Station Theory) but always have come back to portraiture. It just captures something, it moves me.
To truly capture the essence of someone in a single frame is very gratifying. I love doing fashion, I love shooting nudes. But I always come back to just straight portraits. ANYONE can sit for a decent portrait. Not everyone can (or wants to do fashion or nudes). But portraits are different. It’s what I love to do the most.
Phoblographer: The Salty Girls series is one that not only tries to empower women about their body image, but also tries to tackle the effects of Cystic Fibrosis. What made you want to do this project?
Ian: SaltyGirls started when I was halfway through shooting my first book about adults with CF, called JUST BREATHE. I was diagnosed when I was 38 years old, when most people are
diagnosed at birth. For those not up to speed, Cystic Fibrosis is a fatal genetic disease that affects mainly your lungs and pancreas. Not that long ago the average age of someone with CF was under 24 years old. Now it’s over 40. Great strides have been made fighting this disease.
Halfway through JUST BREATHE some of the women were telling me their stories, and they had issues very specific to being a woman in this modern day and age. After hearing similar stories I thought it would be good to do a second, parallel book for them.
Phoblographer: Obviously, these women are not all models; so what was the conversation like when pitching the idea of this project to each of them?
Ian: The initial conversations were pretty tough. Many of the women wanted nothing to do with it, and others were very excited. But it was a very hard sell at first.
Imagine this: a Canadian photographer travelling through the US wants you to meet him in his hotel room and take pics of you in a bikini or lingerie. Tough sell.
But once it got going every project gets to a critical mass where it becomes legitimate. Once I got maybe 10-12 women on board, and fully explained what we wanted to achieve it was much easier to sell. In April I was in Florida for a charity event and photographed 26 women in one week. That helped kick the project to a whole new level.
But by then SaltyGirls had become very known within the CF community. It was AFTER Florida, around May, that the project went viral worldwide. It wasn’t the best timing – the project wasn’t done yet – but you don’t really have control over that.
Phoblographer: What was the portrait process like? Usually it all involves some sort of conversation, working with them on poses, etc.
Ian: The girls involved are not models. And certainly not used to have their photo taken in bikinis or lingerie. But some of the girls were very into it, others somewhat shy.
Always we’d sit and talk for a while. I encouraged them to bring someone along to the shoot as well. Some people brought their whole families. You can’t capture the essence of what I was trying to do if the person felt so uneasy. By the time the project went viral, the girls that came later were all working on their posing, and they knew what to expect. They had their whole wardrobe and posing all planned well ahead. It was pretty awesome to see the enthusiasm.
Phoblographer: This is an interesting combination of both documentary and portraiture, so how have you been marketing the project to also try to get the word out about the disease?
Ian: I think one of the things that helped this project was my background in advertising, as an art director. I know how to design, I know what sells. I know how to market it.
The project was called SaltyGirls, but if you were to brief an ad agency on the “concept” it would simply be “hot women in bikinis with a fatal disease”. It’s that simple. Now we take this,
and find a way to market it tactfully and with grace and dignity. It was important to show the woman in the most positive light. I also know and understand social media marketing very well, so I had planned to try to get this to go viral – it just happened about 4 months too early. But I can’t complain, with all the exposure we got. It STILL wasn’t as much as I wanted.
I wanted to get these girls on Oprah or The Ellen Show, but alas that never happened. In the marketing I always focus on what these women have endured, and their positive
attitudes. Since the trip to Florida this past April 5 of the girls in the book have died. Its hard work – mentally and physically – living with a disease like this.
Phoblographer: The series is already a book, but where do you want to take the project next? A gallery?
Ian: A gallery is something I’ve thoughts about, but the funds just aren’t there for it. I love the size of the prints Martin Schoeller has done for his portrait exhibitions. I’d love to do that. But someone else has gotta pay for it. But it would be so cool to have that travel around the world.
I’ve already started thinking about the next book. It will either be a similar book to the JUST BREATHE portraits, bit will focus on families raising children with CF. Or I’ve thought about expanding the concept from not JUST cystic fibrosis but to also encompass organ donation, which is vital for CF but also a lot of other things.
Just for fun I also want to make a book of portraits of the top 100 preachers/evangelists in North America. very formal, respectful. Maybe that’ll get going one day too.