BROCK ELBANK

HOW DO YOU C ME NOW?

Over a span of 33 months, British photographer Brock Elbank photographed 30 individuals with Congenital Melanocytic Naevus (CMN), an extremely rare birthmark that can cover up to 80% of the body, for his series HOW DO YOU C ME NOW? Shot with his Hasselblad H4D-60 in collaboration with the UK CMN charity Caring Matters Now, Brock’s body-positive portrait series raises awareness on this little-known skin condition that less than 1% of the world’s population is born with.

Agnieszka Palyska
Poland

What is CMN?

CMN, which can originate on any piece of skin, is caused by a random gene mutation during the baby’s development in the womb. CMN grows proportionally on the skin surface as the person gets taller and bigger. This skin is more fragile, should be protected from direct sunlight, and can usually be covered with hair.

Brock’s portrait subjects span 14 countries across 5 continents, including Australia, Brazil, USA, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, and China. As his subjects have normally done for his past series, including Freckles and Vitiligo, each person flew to Brock’s London studio to sit for him. But for some, this was their first time allowing themselves to be formally photographed, especially without clothes covering their CMN, shot without makeup on or even meet another person with CMN.

Youkang Wu
China

GEMMA WHYATT

ENGLAND | 24 YEARS OLD

How has CMN affected you while growing up? And how have you/how do you overcome any struggles? 

From a young age I knew I was a bit different, but my skin didn't really affect me until I entered adolescence when I became more self-conscious. Before that, I used to have no hesitance about showing my skin – I used to do a lot of sport, wearing leotards that revealed the largest of my CMN. Later, I started passing on trips to the swimming pool or the beach, wearing long sleeves and scarves in summer to cover up. I probably stuck out more by the mismatched clothes to the weather than my skin! I have really supportive friends and family and gradually made conscious efforts to stop limiting what I did or wore. It's an ongoing journey to self-acceptance, but I'm doing a lot better now than say 10 years ago.

Why did you let yourself get photographed for the project?

I'd seen some beautiful pictures of Alejandra, from Brock's Freckles series and thought, had I seen pictures like that when I was younger I might have started feeling more accepting and confident much earlier. I think seeing beautiful images and messages that relate specifically to you is very empowering and wanted to be part of something that could help raise awareness and promote body positive messages about looking different.

Has participating in this project changed your perspective?

It has forced me to put aside my own insecurities and see the bigger picture with regard to my self-image. Since the exhibition I have started wearing my hair in a bun sometimes, showing the more affected side of my neck and head.  I also wore a low-cut dress to the opening which I had to buy specially as I didn't own one from before. I wanted to actually make my birthmarks more obvious! I have become an even stronger advocate of supporting those with visible differences like CMN by raising awareness and encouraging self-love and acceptance.

Yulianna Yussef

Ukraine/Lebanon | 25 years old

Where on your body is CMN most present?

My CMN is mostly on my back, buttocks, and stomach.

How has CMN affected you while growing up?  

Before I was 7 years old, I didn’t pay much attention to my birthmarks; I remember looking at my skin in the mirror pretty much without any particular emotions. After 7 years old, the bullying started – I started to notice all eyes on me and fingers being pointed at my legs. I also found out that the parents of other children forbid them to play with me because they thought that I was contagious.

The hardest time was through my teenage years. Questions like “Why me?” and “Why do I deserve this?” ran through my head along with thoughts like nobody would ever love a girl with a black, hairy back. I was thinking that boys would never want me because they would have the choice of a “normal” girl with perfect skin.

At some point, I was so tired of hiding and being afraid of people and their reactions. I was hating myself for this weakness and that I felt so much pity for myself. Once I understood that only I can help myself, I was able to work on my confidence. The first thing I thought when I started to analyze people’s reactions and why they might be afraid was that most people really don’t know what CMN is. I thought maybe if they knew about my life and the lives of others with CMN that things would be much easier. I started to post about my CMN on Instagram and Facebook. And I’m happy I did. 

I want to be happy, healthy, feel beautiful, confident and sexy in my own skin – and I am now. But it’s been a long way to get to this state.

Has participating in this project changed your perspective?

After I met people with the same skin as mine, I understood how lonely I had been for all these years. Not in the sense that I had no friends, relationships or family of course. I did have all that and still do now. But no one can understand you better than a person who goes through the same situations as you – a person who literally lives in the same skin. My friends will never fully understand what it means for me to walk the streets with my skin showing and seeing all eyes on me and hearing rude remarks. I can be very open about my birthmarks, but there are also days when I’m scared and none of my family or friends can find the right words to console me. I don’t feel sorry for myself, but it’s a pity that in my childhood there was no one who understood me. How quickly I would have learned to understand and love myself if such exhibitions and body positivity were present when I was younger.

Callum White
England

Mathilde Arctander
Norway

Alejandra Garcia

Spain | 26 years old

Where on your body is CMN most present?

On my back and buttocks.

How has CMN affected you while growing up?  

I was always aware of my skin; at first, I tried to hide, but over time I understood that not everything is related to the body. I need to feel good about myself as a whole, physically and mentally.

Why did you let yourself get photographed for the project?

A friend of mine shared a post about Brock’s Freckles series back in 2016 and I thought it could be an awesome project to collaborate on to create awareness of my skin condition, since I have both freckles and CMN. So I sent him a message on Instagram and we agreed on a date for shooting.

Has participating in this project changed your perspective?

My freckles and CMN have been part of me all my life and actually, I do not see them when I look at myself in the mirror. It's just me. My purpose when participating in this project was to inspire others to feel the same and this exhibition has exceeded expectations. I am sure this made an important impact on people that had never seen anyone with this skin condition before and also for those that that have this condition that do not feel confident. I am very thankful and appreciate so much how they worked hard for uniting us with the aim to show the world what CMN is. 

Frederik Gjøg

Norway | 19 years old

Where on your body is CMN most present?

My CMN extends from just above the navel and around the back down to the left knee. It stops almost at the hip on the right leg.

How has CMN affected you while growing up?  

When I was younger, I always had to wear a special sweater and bathing shorts to not get as much sunlight on my CMN and then I had to use sunscreen with high sun factor. I almost always got sunburned even though I tried to avoid the sun.  I have also been involved in swimming and come a long way with wearing a speedo around other swimmers. I think it has helped me build up my confidence.

Before the project and meeting other subjects at the exhibition opening, had you met anyone with CMN before?

Yes, in Norway we have a group for those born with CMN where we have some small meetings.

Has participating in this project changed your perspective?

I’ve built up a little more confidence and have got an incredible number of positive messages from both close friends and others here in Norway.

Mariana Mendes
Brazil

Noah Barbieri
Switzerland

BROCK’S SERIES HAS BROUGHT OTHERS WITH CMN OUT OF THEIR SHELL

One of the attendees at the opening of Brock’s CMN image series in London was Lucy Reeves who has Giant CMN and had never met another person with the rare birthmark. Meeting Brock at the exhibition changed her whole world and her outlook on life. Following the exhibition visit, Lucy agreed to having her portrait taken for the first time ever without wearing long sleeved clothes and makeup.

LUCY REEVES

ENGLAND | 35 YEARS OLD

Where on your body is CMN most present?

I have what’s called Giant CMN so my largest one goes around my whole neck right to the bottom of my back and covering my front to under the breast bone and both arms to my elbows. I then have smaller patches and satellites (moles) covering the rest of my body. I haven't really got any skin that isn't covered in moles or large patches. 

How has CMN affected you while growing up?

CMN affected me massively. I never participated in anything that involved showing any skin, so I missed out on holidays and never went swimming. I used to get changed locking myself in the bathroom and it has only been the last few months that I have stopped doing this. I would miss out on some parties or occasions where all my friends would wear dresses and I felt like I couldn't.

I think my CMN caused a lot of heartache that I tried to hide from everyone. I covered up even in 30°C heat to hide my skin. I wouldn’t go to BBQs because everyone would look nice and summery and I wasn’t able to. I would cover up all day at school – I’d wear a top under my school shirt so it would cover the neck part of the shirt more and I would wear three pairs of tights so no moles would show through. I would keep my jumper on to cover my arms as the shirt was short sleeved. I would never want to participate in PE and would often have a sick note. When I met my partners, I would sleep fully clothed and I even wore an ankle length nightie. I had sewed the neck part of the nightie tight together so when I gave birth to my children, no one would see my birthmark on my neck.

I think a lot of private moments and pep talks to myself helped me. I used to think as long as I'm ok with my own company then I’ll be ok when I'm alone for the rest of my life as I really didn't think I’d ever get married let alone have children because of my skin.

How has Brock’s CMN series changed you and your outlook on life?

Meeting my partner and how much he loves me for my uniqueness has helped me celebrate the fact that I’m different, but meeting Brock and the others with CMN was life changing for me. The happiness I felt that day seeing other people with my condition – it was like a weight had been lifted. I could actually talk about this secret that I’ve been hiding all these years and they get me; they understood everything I said.

It was amazing looking at someone with the same condition. I felt like I was looking into a mirror – even though we didn't look alike, I felt we were the same. It was an instant connection, a celebration of our uniqueness. I felt emotional looking at the children, who I saw as a mini version of myself. But these children seemed so happy and knowing they were not alone will help them as they grow up.

I am so grateful to Brock and the exhibition. It has changed my whole outlook and I look at my skin in a way I haven't ever done before – more like art. I feel like my life finally starts now.

SPREADING AWARENESS

Brock’s CMN series, shot for the UK CMN charity Caring Matters Now, has been exhibited at the London OXO Wharf Gallery and will travel to Italy, the USA, Spain, Switzerland and Australia, continuing to spread awareness and understanding of this rare condition.


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