The New York Times video journalist Kassie Bracken followed Caitlin Kiernan down to Finksburg, Maryland, to visit Vinnie Myers’ tattoo parlor for the final step in her reconstruction surgery after a double mastectomy.
This interview was edited.
POV: It seems like an entire documentary could be about Vinnie Myers and what he’s doing and his work to help women feel whole again.
Kassie Bracken: Vinnie’s been covered before, there have been your more traditional news packages done about him… but [Kiernan and Myers’s] conversation was so organic. I don’t think anyone had done a first-person with him.
He’s giving up something to do this, and that’s not something you take lightly, he obviously thought he was going to be doing something much more connected with his art. And he’s capable of doing that. But because of his sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, he made a different decision and he stuck with it.
But you can almost see it, you can see the active trade off he’s doing every day. I just thought that was really cool and interesting. It was a little bit beyond the story that I thought it was going to be.
One thing that I think would be fascinating as a follow up — He sees a lot of really badly done jobs. He talked a lot about how much that bothers him. He mentioned that he was working on a paper with someone at Johns Hopkins, and he’s becoming an advocate in a way. He’s active in making sure that women are treated well throughout the process, to the very end.
It’s one of those things where, when you’re in the middle of producing something, and you’re excited to tell your friends the story each time… you know you’re on to something.
POV: Was there anything really shocking that you learned in the process of producing “The Nipple Artist”?
Kassie Bracken: Just seeing the photos that Vinnie showed us of the women, which you can see on his website. There’s clearly a wide spectrum in terms of plastic surgery for women, and the corrections he has to do just for the tattoo. He said that to Caitlin: “I just wish people would bring an artistic eye to the work they’re doing.” That was pretty surprising, just to see those pictures. It just made me respect the fact that he was continuing to do this even more.
One thing that was also surprising, in a weird way, is that the entire appointment is just one hour. And literally, he just went on to the next appointment. And that hits you. You know, it’s one hour, and then he’s gone. And you just see the relief in her eyes, and he did that in an hour. And then on to the next woman. It just makes you realize how important these things are.
POV: Have you produced any other stories about breast cancer or cancer survivors in the past?
Kassie Bracken: I edited on a story about a woman who’d opted to have a mastectomy done even though she was cancer free because she’d found out she had the BRCA gene, as part of Amy Harmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “The DNA Age” in 2008. That was way before Angelina Jolie’s decision.
What I really liked about Caitlin’s story was that it isn’t a traditional cancer story, even though it is about cancer. After speaking with Caitlin I knew there was going to be great humor in this and that was really exciting. I just appreciated how open she was on the phone and how funny she was, but also how willing she was to share her story.
POV: How long did you spend with Caitlin before and during filming?
Kassie Bracken: When I first called her, I was nervous. I was thinking there’s no way this woman is going to allow a camera and not have a million stipulations about what we can and cannot shoot. But just talking to her, she was like, “Yeah, I’ve been showing my breasts to everyone!” I was caught a little off guard, I won’t lie, but she was completely and totally willing. And from that conversation, I went and met her at her apartment the day before she was leaving.
Initially, we thought she was going to be going to Maryland with a whole bunch of girlfriends and it was going to be a whole celebratory trip. I was going to stay overnight with them in Washington, and there were going to be margaritas at the end. But one by one, her friends had to back out at the last minute and the plan changed. It became much more personal, I think, which is great.
But in a way, I almost became the person who was there for her. The camera was her friend on the ride. So I spent half the day with her before she left, but we really instantly clicked and I appreciated her humor. Although, I have to say, I think the first or second question I asked on camera, she started crying and it really caught us both off guard.
I told her in this case I would show her a cut before it went out just because it is so personal, and I was even nervous then. What if she changed her mind? What if she got caught up in this moment, in the excitement and then was like, “Wait, maybe I don’t want to be this vulnerable on camera.” But to her credit, she was just on board all the way through.
I also appreciated, with Caitlin, how much she understood how lucky she is in terms of her ability to be able to find someone like Vinnie, and her ability to pay. She knew she had the best of the best throughout her process, and she mentioned that a few times. I think we end the video that way, and I appreciate that she understood that not all women get to be treated so well, even at the very end with this guy who clearly does beautiful work and is an expert. She realized that not all stories will end on that great, happy note in the midst of this terrible situation. I always appreciate that when people realize it’s more than their story. She mentioned that a few times, not just once.
POV: The film really captures how funny Caitlin is and her great attitude about the whole situation, and even the almost absurdity the whole situation, while maintaining a serious tone. How did you and Taige Jensen (editor) negotiate the tone for the short?
Kassie Bracken: Caitlin says at some points that she uses her humor to get through some tough situations, and I always knew it was going to be fun after speaking with her, but it was interesting. There are a couple moments where she’s more vulnerable, and that had to mean something. And we needed to make those moments land.
I pulled selects out and showed Taige and then he went through all the footage. And Taige actually has a comedy background, he’s a successful comedic writer. I was really excited to get to work with him on this because he’s great with comedy. It ended up being a lot less obviously funny than I thought it would be, but in the end, I was so happy. He was the one who said we have to pull this back a little bit and I’m so glad he did because I think it’s the right amount of humor, for Caitlin and Vinnie.