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Francis Levy Headshot

Rina Castelnuovo's Times Photo

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Rina Castelnuovo's photograph of a faceless 28-year-old Tel Aviv woman, which accompanied the New York Times front page story "In Israel, A Push to Test For Cancer Gene Leaves Many Conflicted" (NYT, 11/26/13) presents the viewer with a congeries of troubling emotions.

It's an iconic photo that goes beyond the substance of the article itself. The woman in the photo has pulled down the strap of her blouse to reveal the scar on her breast, where ostensibly a lump had been removed. But the breast is still defiantly intact and there is even the insinuation of the aureole. Above the incision is a tattoo of a Jewish star.

The shot recalls a l964 film called The Pawnbroker in which a woman walks into Rod Steiger's shop and pulls up her blouse in order to get what she wants. The effect of the Times image is a little like that in The Pawnbroker. Steiger, who plays a refugee who'd spent time in a concentration camp, is immediately flooded with memories, just as the reader of the Times story is flooded with associations that don't entirely bear upon the subject at hand -- which is the high prevalence of breast cancer in the population of Israeli women and the decision by those who, according to the Times, "tested positive for mutations in the BRCA one and two genes" to have double mastectomies, in addition to having their ovaries removed.

Is the headless woman repelling or intentionally stimulating us with the revelation of her scar, her breast and her tattoo? Is she seducing us or turning us away? Tattoos and cutting are forms of self-mutilation, but they were also unwillingly inflicted on inmates in the camps.

What is Castelnuovo's subject saying? The photo is bold and sexual and in a way a jeremiad against the movement for the kind of preemptive surgery the article describes. The Jewish star was a stigma (and a source of pride) in the Warsaw Ghetto as was the tattoo for inmates in the camps. Now breasts or the absence of them have become the stigma. The New York Times photo with its breast and tattooed star comprises both of these painful images.

This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture