A powerful portrait series shows us the beauty of birthmarks.

Linda Hansen got her start doing commercial photography in Denmark. But she knew she wanted to use her camera for more than just selling products.

After experimenting with a few different projects (she once traveled the country photographing and interviewing other women named Linda Hansen!), it was a conversation with an old friend that sparked what would become her most important work to date.

Hansen's friend, a woman she had known since childhood, had a unique and distinctive birthmark on her face (called nevus flammeus nuchae or sometimes a "port wine stain"). They'd often talk about how people reacted seeing her on the street and some of the strange (and mean) comments she'd get.


"I got the idea that I have to take photos. I have to meet and talk with these people," Hansen says.

Hansen began searching for more people like her friend for a series of portraits. Surprisingly, they were incredibly easy to find.

A casual casting call on Facebook got shared hundreds of times. Hansen started noticing people on the street who might fit the bill. Friends and acquaintances connected her with potential models.

Seemingly everyone knew someone with a birthmark they'd be proud to contribute to her project. (According to WebMD, about 1 in 300 babies are born with some form of the condition).

All photos by Linda Hansen, used with permission.

In her portraits, Hansen aims to challenge how we all see and treat each other. And ourselves.

One of the models, a man, was extremely nervous. He had only let people photograph him from his "good side" for as long as he could remember. And only in black and white.

A head-on, color portrait filled him with dread. But he pushed through.

"I was really surprised what people can say to each other. [The models] get a lot of rude comments," Hansen says. "Sauce face, pizza face." And that's not the worst of it.

She says doesn't understand how we can celebrate the beautiful uniqueness of, say, tattoos but look away from nature's own marks.

In her photos, Hansen challenges us to not look away. To not stare or sneak a glance. But to truly see and eventually see past the things that make us different.

"When we know each other well, the way we look isn't important anymore," she says. "So much worry about how we look, for who? For people we don't know."

She says society tells us we all need to be alike. Photoshopped models and celebrities convey the message "No wrinkles, no scars, no spots, no nothing," Hansen says.

"We all have our small differences, and that's what makes us human and unique."

All in all, Hansen took 32 portraits and compiled them into a book, called "Naevus Flammeus."

She's hoping the portraits, along with notes on the history of birthmarks and discussion of how (and, more importantly if) they should be treated, will make us all more aware of what makes us different; whether it's a birthmark, a scar, a set of wrinkles, or even something unseen by the naked eye altogether.

Because what makes us different is ultimately what makes us human.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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