When Cibolo portrait photographer Nancie Jimenez donated a photo session to an elementary school silent auction, she never anticipated the photo session would significantly impact her life.

But that’s exactly what happened when Claire Heins, who was pregnant with her second child at the time, booked a maternity shoot.

Heins, a 33-year-old breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy, told Jimenez she wanted to do more than just take smiling portraits of the joyous occasion. Instead, she wanted to capture images that would give a voice to an underrepresented group of women.

“It’s a unique thing to get pregnant after breast cancer. It’s not very common, and it’s not very common to get breast cancer at a young age,” Heins told the Rivard Report. “I thought it would be really important to have that represented both for myself and for the community as a whole, that there is hope and it is possible to have children after breast cancer.”

The resulting black-and-white images show Heins topless, arms placed gently around her 8-months pregnant belly as she looks down, and another where she looks directly at the camera while smiling, both arms raised as she flexes her biceps – her breasts on full display in each.

“I did a lot of crying,” Jimenez said of her session with Heins. “It was very awesome. I never knew women were so resilient, and when I shared the first photo, I got an overwhelming response from women who had gone through similar experiences or knew other women who had.”

It was then that Jimenez decided to put out a call for models who were willing to have their photo taken for a portrait series titled The Claire Project, which will be showing at Brick at Blue Star through Jan. 24. All proceeds from the exhibit go directly to WINGS, a local organization that helps uninsured women in Central and South Texas pay for breast cancer treatments.

The show features portraits of 10 women who pose topless, showing their breasts following the surgeries needed as part of their cancer treatment, and 12 portraits of fully-clothed women with accompanying words that detail their experiences with breast cancer and breast disease.

In one photo, a woman named Karen smiles broadly, as if she had just been laughing before the portrait was taken. She shared that she was diagnosed in 2017, and her treatment included a double mastectomy.

“I am still on my cancer journey,” said Karen, who preferred to use her first name only. “I know God has a plan for me and wants me to serve others who are also experiencing their [cancer] journey.”

Ana Lucia Gonzales attended the show with her mother, who is a breast cancer survivor. Gonzales said she wanted her mom to see the project because her cancer is not something they often talk about, despite it being something that deeply impacted both of their lives. 

“I wanted her to see that, despite changes to her body, she could still feel empowered,” Gonzales said. “I want her to see other strong women, because that’s how I view her – as a strong woman.”

Jimenez said the beginning of each photo shoot started with her cranking up music so both photographer and subject could dance a little and “let loose” before what was “always an incredibly emotional and powerful session.”

“I have never done anything personal like this before,” Jimenez said. “I felt a great deal of responsibility to portray these women as dignified and to make sure they are represented as true to their breast cancer journey.”

The gallery opening Thursday night also served as the kickoff event for San Antonio’s annual Dream Week, which runs through Jan. 26.

DreamWeek founder Shokare Nakpodia said the event is meant to be a “celebration of all of us,” which is particularly important for cancer survivors.

“I come from Africa, and in our language, we don’t mention the word cancer. It is described as the disease you do not mention; we do not speak about it,” Nakpodia said. “It is important to give a voice to everyone in order to build community and to help people see that we are all human and we are not alone.”

Heins said her hope is that “people see the humanness, joy, and stories behind the photos.”

“Not seeing yourself represented makes you feel a lot more isolated, but there is a community for people who have had breast cancer before 40” and for women of all ages who have had to go through this, Heins said. “I feel strongly that this is a community that deserves a voice, and I feel proud to be someone who is helping in some way to make that happen.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.