MILFORD — John Mollura believes that a person should not be defined by their scars — neither physical nor mental.
That’s where his RE>Figured Project comes in.
The RE>Figured Project, which began this spring, has been providing stories of overcoming obstacles. Following a 20-year career with NASA and the Department of Defense, Mr. Mollura, a professional photographer for the past four years, has been creating portraits of individuals who are choosing to transform the narrative of past hurts into celebrations of survival.
It began when Ashlie Eskew’s husband, Monty, panicked about showing a massive scar that spanned his entire abdomen at the beach and pool this summer. Mr. Eskew had undergone surgery to remove cancer that coursed through his body.
She contacted her friend, Mr. Mollura, with an idea. She asked him if he could create “artistic, off-the-wall ways to celebrate scars in photos, changing the victim mentality to something amazing,” he said.
He agreed to do so.
“I really try to use my photography business for good — to really help people’s self-esteem and to see themselves in a positive light. Because as someone who’s wrestled with various challenges in my life, both physical and mental, I feel honored to be able to help people and help them through some things that I’ve worked through myself,” he said.
The photographer, who last year created portraits of front-line workers during the pandemic, decided that he would be the RE>Figured Project’s first subject and share his story about overcoming a birth defect that left him with a misshapen foot and scars on his right calf.
“I want to be very transparent with people, and how can I, in good conscience, ask people to really bear their body and soul, sometimes quite literally, if I wasn’t willing to share some of the struggles and hardships and successes that I’ve had?” he said.
Born with a clubfoot, he said Mrs. Eskew’s idea may not have resonated as much had he not gone through some of the same difficulty.
“Whenever you experience something, it allows you to develop that level of empathy you just can’t have without that experience. I think that’s what’s really helped to connect me with people on this project,” he said.
He added that he had trouble coming up with a name for the endeavor.
“The name actually came from whenever I took a photo of my feet, and I looked at the image on the back of the camera and thought, ‘My goodness. My feet look so disfigured.’ It kind of stopped me in my tracks, and I said to myself, what if, instead of me saying all the time, after the past 43 years, ‘You look disfigured. Something’s wrong with you,’ what if I rephrase the way I saw it and said, ‘You know what? Yep, I have a foot issue, but my parents never let it stop me. I went on to become an athlete. I’m a third-degree black belt. I’ve walked on over half the Earth’s continents, including Antarctica,’” he said.
“So that’s where the name came from, was me having some negative talks with myself and then deciding to change that soundtrack and refigure the way I see myself, and hopefully, others will be able to do that.”
During the photo shoots in his Milford studio, Mr. Mollura has conversations with the subjects and listens to their stories. These conversations are recorded and then turned over to a team of professional writers, who create testimonials of hope and encouragement. The portraits are paired with the written pieces and posted to both Instagram and Facebook.
Faye Adcox was a recent participant in the RE>Figured Project. In February 2016, she had a near-fatal car accident. Her pelvis was broken in nine places, her spleen was ruptured, and her stomach and bladder punctured. She underwent a six-hour surgery and still had to be flown to ChristianaCare in Newark to have her broken pelvis repaired.
“I suffer from PTSD from the trauma of the accident and that has limited me in doing some of the things I used to, but I have not completely given up,” she said in one of the pieces.
“I still train in martial arts and teach kickboxing. I don’t have the range of motion and flexibility I once had and I do get frustrated about it, but I keep fighting through the frustration and through the PTSD. I remind myself that I will not be defined by this.”
Mr. Mollura said the subjects, such as Ms. Adcox, haven’t been a part of the project just for themselves. It’s out of a desire to help others.
“I’ve had a lot of people actually come, not so much with physical scars, but with mental things that they’ve come to share about how they’ve overcome or worked through things. People show up with the mind-set of doing this to help other people,” he said.
About half the subjects have stories about mental health they’d like to share, he added.
“A couple have been veterans who have served in the military that wound up with PTSD and various other addictions that they’ve overcome, directly and indirectly resulting from their time in the service. We’ve come to really help get the word out about veterans’ mental health,” Mr. Mollura said.
A subject known as “Gail M.” graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and was an F-16 fighter jet maintenance officer, combat fitness instructor, wife, mother of two, licensed massage therapist and karate black belt.
“When I resigned my commission I lost part of my identity. My ‘self’ was tied to that commission,” she said in her entry.
“To be a soldier and do the things that are required of you, you have to lose part of yourself and they build you back up to what they need you to be. That is a big failure on the part of our military. They create us for war but then don’t condition us to get back into civilian society.”
Mr. Mollura’s dream is to have other photographers pick up the mantle and start their own RE>Figured Project in their areas.
He said photography can be a powerful tool.
“I heard a quote recently, and I’m drawing a blank on who said it. But they said photography is one of the few things that can basically stop time and rewind time. One of the first things people run to whenever they lose someone close to them a lot of times are the photographs that they have,” he said.
“Photography is a very powerful visual record of our history, and being visual creatures as we are, it really tugs on the heartstrings and can really transport you back. So there’s tremendous power in photography. My tagline for my business is ‘Uncovering the Incredible,’ and that stemmed from, whether I’m doing a portrait session with someone or photographing someone’s business while doing a commercial shoot, it’s my responsibility and honor to show what’s underneath, whether it’s seen as a business someone’s poured their blood, sweat and tears into or uncovering that story and that special part of someone that makes them unique.
“That’s the way I really approach every photo shoot I do, whether it’s for a worldwide corporation or a mom and pop shop or someone getting a portrait for this project.”
There is no charge to participate in the RE>Figured Project. To schedule a shoot, visit here.