Eight years ago, when he was 38, photographer Ian Pettigrew was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease with no cure. CF causes a buildup of mucus in the body’s organs, including the lungs and pancreas, which leads to infections, loss of organ function, and often death. Only 20 years ago, children diagnosed with CF were unlikely to make it out of their teenage years, which is why it’s still seen as a childhood disease. But, thanks to earlier diagnoses and more comprehensive care, a growing number of people with CF are living into their thirties and beyond.
Now, Pettigrew is using his lens to highlight the agency, confidence, and, yes, sex appeal of women living with CF through his photo series “Salty Girls.” (CF leads to elevated levels of chloride — salt — in sweat, making the “sweat test” the most effective way to diagnose it.)
Far from an exercise in objectification, Pettigrew’s project is providing a platform for women with CF to celebrate bodies they have long been told do not fit the standard qualifications for beauty. “To my knowledge, this is the first project of its kind to tackle these issues specifically for women with CF,” Pettigrew told us. “It’s beyond just breaking new ground — we’re venturing into territory that has never been discussed before.” Only now are we beginning to discuss CF as an adult experience, and the women in Pettigrew’s portraits are putting faces to this conversation. “I hope the general public becomes more aware of CF and what it is,” Pettigrew continued. “We don’t get all the glossy press, like the ALS Ice-Bucket [Challenge] or cancer — hopefully this changes today. Awareness is key to finding a cure.”
Not only are Pettigrew’s photos glamorous, but the experience of posing for them has proved transformative for the subjects. “To me, being one of the Salty Girls is a statement of confidence,” one participant shared anonymously. “‘Salty Girls’ helps those of us who don’t look ‘normally’ attractive to embrace our bodies, scars and all, and feel good about ourselves.”
“It took a huge amount of courage for me to be able to expose my body for ‘Salty Girls,'” another participant stated. “But, [my scars] will never define me as a person… My scars tell me that no matter the BS I’ve had to deal with in my life, I still manage to keep the fire in my spirit burning.”