Jodi Swanson was lying in bed, crying and trying not to wake up the person next to her, when she first decided to take photos and display the strong women in her life.
That night in 2012, one of the darkest of the Holmen native’s life, was the start of a photography project called “Women of Strength” that has gone on to feature dozens of women as they persist in their daily struggles.
“It was my secret way of helping myself without telling anyone,” Swanson said.
“Women of Strength” was inspired by something Swanson, who has lived in Chicago for 20 years, had heard of Weight Watchers doing. The weight-loss group advised women to put pictures in which they don’t like their weight and appearance on the refrigerator as a deterrent from snacking.
“I decided, ‘They’re going to be my equivalent of my bad picture on the fridge,’” Swanson said.
But rather than a negative example, Swanson wanted positive women, her role models, to inspire her to be strong.
“I know a woman who went through cancer, and I know a woman whose child died. The reality is that the level of strength that they had to tap into, they may be different, but what they had to tap into was the same,” Swanson said.
Swanson, who is a project manager at Cisco Systems by day, wasn’t formally trained in photography but was able to take advantage of some free community courses in her neighborhood. She started by taking her own photos, setting up her camera and displaying her struggles as she went through them. At the time, she was struggling to free herself from a bad relationship and raise her son Lincoln by herself while job hunting and looking for a new home.
In the middle of her struggle, Swanson was hit with a serious health scare. Her doctor found a lump on her breast and was afraid it could be cancerous. Although it turned out to be a false alarm, waiting on the results was one of the hardest things Swanson has done. She memorialized it in a photo called “The Waiting” to remind herself she got through it.
“It’s hard for me to put out there, because it’s so real,” Swanson said.
Rather than putting her photos on the fridge, Swanson created a Facebook page to share them with her friends. The page, called Women of Strength, now has more than 10,000 followers.
“It’s weird because sometimes you think, ‘Maybe I’m the only one who feels that way,’ then people share it hundreds of times,” Swanson said.
Swanson said it’s strange how many women deny their inner strength and are reluctant to acknowledge that their stories are inspirational.
“So often we compare our stories to situations that are so much worse, so we feel like we can’t say anything,” Swanson said.
Swanson’s project grew naturally to include women she met as she struck up conversations with strangers and was shocked by their stories. She can’t explain how she identifies her women of strength.
“It’s one of those things, when I see, I know,” Swanson said.
For example, Swanson was just visiting her parents, John and Deanna Swanson, when she spotted Anne DuCharme of La Crosse with her six children, four of whom were foster children before she adopted them.
“I was like, ‘I’ve been growing up here my whole life and this is not normal. There’s a story here,’” Swanson said.
Swanson ended up taking the photo of another local woman, Rachel Vogel of Winona, after attending a fundraiser for a memorial charity for Vogel’s husband. Vogel lost her husband to cancer shortly after their marriage and began raising money to support other cancer patients and caregivers with a charity called Team Vogel.
Most often, Swanson just spots women in the crowd and starts talking to them by chance, then discovers their inner strength through conversation. Swanson recalled when she met Mary Jane Bigelbach of Winona at the city’s Steamboat Days. Bigelbach, whose 15-year-old son Irvin Brewin III was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, had ventured out to see the festival.
“She was sitting alone on the curb with her son. That in itself is strength,” Swanson said.
Bigelbach told Swanson what it was like caring for her son, who has special needs due to the genetic condition that altered the development of the muscles and bones in his face. People stare at Brewin due to his condition, but it doesn't stop the small family from living full lives.
“People get afraid of difference sometimes, so they don’t really get to know you,” Bigelbach said. “I’m living in the shadow of what my son deals with every day.”
Swanson was touched by Bigelbach’s dedication to her son and her loneliness and asked whether Bigelbach would let Swanson photograph her, but Bigelbach was reluctant to accept Swanson’s compliments.
“All I’m doing is what I’m expected to do: raise my child and give him a good home,” Bigelbach said.
With some pushing from her son, Bigelbach agreed. She posed with Brewin for photos she said were “uplifting.”
“I know it deeply touched my soul. I just cried and cried and cried when I looked at those pictures,” Bigelbach said.
Swanson’s connections with strangers started from a genuine desire to meet people. She shows her subjects she cares about them as she listens to them without judgment, something she learned from her father, a minister.
“I share my story, even though it’s hard. I share it because I want them to know they’re not alone,” Swanson said.
The photo shoots are often emotionally draining, with the women involved swapping stories of their hardships as they bond with each other.
The stories are often tragic, but it doesn’t stop Swanson from showing women their inner beauty.
“When you’re surrounded by a lot of sad stories like that, it actually accentuates the beauty,” Swanson said.
That beauty caught the attention of Chicago photographer Susan Aurinko, who volunteered to mentor her last year. With Aurinko’s help, Swanson has displayed her photos in a Los Angeles exhibit called “Photo Independence” and will send her photos in November to the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris to be displayed in an exhibit called “fotofever,” with the Chicago-based photography group f8 Collective.
Swanson believes the photos touch people because they show pain, while also showing it can be overcome.
“It’s very real. It’s not just a story. This is a person,” Swanson said.
Her photos validate women’s experiences and their strength in moving on, she said.
To view more of Swanson’s photos, visit her Facebook page at facebook.com/thewomenofstrength.