Jasmine Colgan was just 21 when she was diagnosed with Vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes the loss of skin color in blotches. The shocking news sent Colgan into a depression — but now, the self-proclaimed “photo nerd” is using her experience to encourage others.
“It started with a spot. It wasn’t a very easy thing to deal with,” she tells PEOPLE of her condition. “It was painful to, at certain times, look at my face and see something that wasn’t there the day before.”
Colgan was in her second year of college at Denver’s University of Colorado when she was diagnosed with the acrofacial form of the condition. Over the years, about 23 percent of her body has become depigmented, with parts of her brown complexion turning white.
“I was depressed for a very long time and I was sad about it for a long time,” she says. “People would stare at me and I got angry about it … [My self esteem] took a hit for a couple of years. It was really, really difficult to be able to look in the mirror and actually see the same person I saw years before who was one complexion.”
She says she tried every form of treatment available to her before learning that there is “no chance” to reverse or cure her condition. As she struggled to come to terms with the illness, Colgan says it was late her grandmother’s words that helped her through.
“I cried and I called her when I was diagnosed with Vitiligo. And, before she passed away, she told me, ‘You gotta have tough skin,’ ” Colgan recalls.
“It was really cool to have her words be a way for me to push myself every single day even when I wanted to give up.”
Colgan was inspired — a year after her diagnosis, she began her “Tough Skin” photo project, in which she travels across the country to meet and photograph people with Vitiligo.
“It’s really nice to be able to be a support system,” she tells PEOPLE. “For people to know that I will go to them and bring them a bracelet and hug them and cry with them … and then photograph them and create this portrait so that they could see what another person sees about them.”
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She posts the moving photos on her website, where she also chronicles her journey with the illness. Meanwhile, Colgan’s Instagram account is filled with positive messages and photos of her many meet-and-greets.
The blogger also shows off changes in her pigment — she’s come a long way from dreading each new spot, she says.
“I’m still losing pigment every day,” Colgan tells PEOPLE. “Sometimes, I’ll just notice a new spot and it’s just like,’Oh, welcome to the family!’ I feel like I’m happy about them now. It took me a long time to get here.”