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The Tutu Project: Pink tulle-clad photographer helps to snap away cancer blues

Linda Lancaster-Carey skims photographs of her husband as she receives chemotherapy for a second bout of cancer.

They bring a smile to her face.

She shares the images with fellow patients.

They laugh, too.

They are not ordinary portraits. In them, New Jersey photographer Bob Carey slips into pink tulle — nothing but — and opts for bare feet over satin-encased toes.

“I had been taking the images to treatment with me and showing the women. They all loved it,” Lancaster-Carey said.

The 52-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. She overcame it, but it recurred in 2006, in her liver. She is back receiving treatment.

“I came home and told him about how these women loved these pictures and how it just really gave them a break from treatment to just look at these and talk about the stories,” Lancaster-Carey said.

“There were a lot of funny stories behind them.”

Fighting cancer blues

So began The Tutu Project — pink tulle, self-portraits and love for Linda.

Carey has snapped more than 100 images in pink frills — with cows in a field, at the Grand Canyon and flat on his back in Times Square.

The 52-year-old first slipped on a pink tutu in a charity project for an Arizona ballet company. But when the photographer moved to the East Coast in 2003, he stepped into the bell-shaped tutu again to shoot portraits.

Watch Bob Carey shoot a portrait in Monument Valley

First, as a way to adjust to a new home. Later, to cope when his wife of nearly 25 years was diagnosed with cancer.

“I started making these photographs as self-therapy,” Carey said.

“I’d go out, get away from the environment, get away from everything that was going on.”

Carey did not know its reach at the time. But the smiles it drew from his wife’s sister patients were the powerful spark to the series.

“It made them happy and it took them away from reality while they were having their chemotherapy,” Carey said.

“That’s when I knew that I needed to do something with these images because I knew that it made them happy.”

Laughter is at the heart of their marriage, Lancaster-Carey said.

“He’s been supportive throughout this whole cancer journey.”

“We’ve always had a lot of laughter in our relationship anyway and this just was an extension of that.”

“There is nothing like a man in a pink tutu to make you laugh.”

She fondly recalls a 10-day road trip taken solely to snap tutu portraits — packing nothing but their gear, their dog and “no real idea of where we were going,” Lancaster-Carey said.

“It was really, totally away from life,” she said.

“There wasn’t any talk of cancer. It was just ‘let’s go have fun and see what happens.'”

‘Ballerina’

Carey wanted to grow the collection, publishing the photographs in a book to raise money for women with breast cancer to aid with everyday expenses.

“We’re raising money for women that need it,” he said. “If their insurance won’t pay for certain things — if they need transportation or special dietary needs, massage, acupuncture, whatever it takes to make them happy during this rough time.”

“I’ve seen my family go through these treatments and they’re not easy,” said Carey, who lost his parents and two brother-in-laws to cancer.

“That’s why it’s so important for me to make sure that the people going through these things are taken care of and not suffering through them.”

Ballerina, which features 61 of Carey’s quirky self-portraits, was published in September. Net proceeds from its sales go toward The Carey Foundation, founded by the couple to support women with breast cancer and survivors.

Overwhelming response

Carey is blown away by the support.

“I’m just overwhelmed by the level of support we get,” he said.

“It never started that way it was just a way for me to express myself and to help me through the times that Linda and I were going through together,” he said. “It was unthinkable where it started.”

Their lives have changed in a “really good way,” Carey said. But even with the whirlwind spawned in pink tulle, his time with Linda is most precious, he said.

“I’m thankful that Linda is still doing well. I’m thankful that we’re able to share this project together and it means a lot to her.”

Lancaster-Carey is in awe with the stories of those touched by the series. She is grateful for new friendships but is adjusting to their relationship in the limelight.

“People are emailing me their stories and it’s really intense. It’s amazing what people will open up.”

“In the beginning, it was really something to just take my mind off of it. But now it’s really changed into something different.”

“It was just a way for both of us to step away from the cancer but the [photos] have taken on an entirely new meaning. It’s not just about Bob and I anymore.”

Reviews on Amazon.com for Ballerina move her to tears.

“They made me cry. I was so touched.”

“Who would’ve guessed that this would touch people so much? We never, ever, ever.”

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