About Beauty: A love letter

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Parental guidance advised, sensitive emotional issues discussed.

This is a love letter to some of the most remarkable full stops in the world, and to their friends. It could also have been an essay about beauty, but I’d rather treat it as the former.


The immediate background
On Saturday, 6 July 2013 Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon. During his commentary on the match, BBC radio presenter John Inverdale reportedly said, "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little: 'You're never going to be a looker, you'll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'"?


His remarks were rightfully condemned as sexist (see, for instance, the article by Tanya Gold1), for the next day nobody remarked on Andy Murray’s hardly matching Roger Federer’s looks. Murray won the men’s title.


A short while earlier Amy Fleming2 produced an article that suggested we are uglier than we think we are – she based it on research that tested people’s reactions to carefully rendered photographs. I think the research findings are problematic.


I, too, unashamedly, produce carefully rendered photographs of my models. I do not make people beautiful; I merely try to treat anyone as if she or he is an international star. I select the right lenses, use the right light and carefully render the photographs afterwards.


A number of important full stops helped me shape these photographic skills, and my reluctance to accept the premise of Fleming’s article.


Are we uglier than we think?
Amy Fleming3 wrote that Dove Beauty Soap ran an advertising campaign that was supposed to prove that people are more beautiful than they think they are. The campaign focused on a woman describing herself to an FBI identikit artist; after which the same woman was described to the same artist by another woman. Inevitably the description of the self was less flattering than the description of the other. Dove used this to show that we are more beautiful than we think.


Fleming then quotes research by psychologist and behavioural scientist Nicholas Epley, which seemingly proves the opposite. According to Fleming, Epley asked people to identify themselves in a series of photographs that were rendered (read “photoshopped”) to make them look more or less beautiful. Apparently most people did not choose the original photograph (showing them “as they are”); much rather they chose one of the pictures that had been enhanced.

I can understand that.

Lenina, in one of the first shots I took of her

Anyone who is familiar with Roger Ballen’s work4 will know that he certainly does not try to make his subjects look pretty. I know Ballen personally and I admire his work. I also know that he takes great care in dealing with his subjects to make them understand why his images are so stark, but I do not aspire to walk in his footsteps. I find joy in taking and rendering photographs of people in a way that makes them feel good about themselves.


I therefore conspire against Amy Fleming and Nicholas Epley. I do my best to create images that are as true to that person’s inner image as I can possibly get them. My images are just as true as Roger Ballen’s are – the results come from how we take the photographs and how render them afterwards.


Who creates a “looker”?
My interest lies not in the tennis, nor so much in the sexism underlying Inverdale’s remark. I would rather investigate why Inverdale could be so remarkably blind as to not see how beautiful Bartoli is.


Maria Sharapova has never won Wimbledon; why then select her to be the stereotype of beauty? I know why: Sharapova’s image has been carefully crafted by brilliant photographers, make-up professionals and photo renderers. Her image has been created in the same meticulous way that Bartoli’s match-winning form has been crafted.

Actress Stephanie Badenhorst, now on the big screen in Die laaste tango

John Inverdale totally did not get that. While Sharapova spent time in front of the cameras, Bartoli slugged it out on the courts.


Sharapova is a fairly good player, but she has never won Wimbledon. I could, however, turn Bartoli into Inverdale’s idea of a “looker” – and there are many photographers out there who would love to do the same. Whether Bartoli would like to be portrayed as an Inverdale-style looker is another question, but it can be done with less sweat than playing a set of tennis.

That brings me back to the full stops I am dedicating this letter to.

The owner of these remarkable dots is a young woman called Lenina. She is not blond, but I was smitten when I saw her the first time. So much beauty rarely comes in one package, and to get her in front of my camera was a wonderful opportunity.


Our first shoot was not successful, however. First shoots seldom are, for to get really good pictures, one should learn to understand the model.


Interestingly, though, one of my very first pictures of Lenina has received praise from various parts of the world, but it was too harsh. Lenina, more than any other model, taught me a lesson: The model wants to feel special. My artistic needs are subject to her needs.

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with Lenina on many occasions. I began understanding her needs, and started shooting accordingly. One day, after a gruelling shoot that lasted about eight hours, I received an SMS from Lenina complimenting me on taking good pictures. That was so special; I kept it on my phone for many months.


Lenina and I taught each other valuable lessons. She taught me to create images of her as she wants to be seen. But she also began to see herself through the praises of others, based on my photographs, and grew more comfortable with the images I create.

Does the camera lie?

When I render a photograph, I do enhance the original, but I do not change the person. The photographs of Lenina show her as she is; I simply use my skill and my equipment to create images of her beauty.

Lenina is blessed with a beautiful skin. Her eyes are enormous and her lips ...


Not all my models are equally blessed. I have often had to remove pimples and blemishes from the faces of many a youngster. And why not? Maria Sharapova gets the best possible treatment from the people who render her photographs; why should I not allow any other boy or girl the opportunity to see him- or herself on photographs the way Sharapova is able to see herself?

I like working with natural beauty. That is why I love Lenina’s freckles. Without her freckles, Lenina would be an imposter.


It is true that the rendering of photographs (often called “photoshopping”) can create slimmer figures, bigger eyes, wider smiles ... As a rule I try not to change a person’s appearance; I simply show them their own beauty. I use light, lenses and technique to bring out who the real person is. Pimples I’ll remove, freckles not.


Who decided what beauty is?
If we follow drawings and paintings over the centuries, we begin to understand how the West has created the likeness of the “ideal” person – and how that ideal changes over time.

With the advent of television and improved printing presses, advertisers began bombarding us with images of the “ideal” person. The way a person looks at the camera, stands in front of a camera, the angle the photographer chooses, the lens, the light and the background – all of these components form part of creating the “ideal”.

Stephanie Badenhorst

Sharapova gets photographed to look like this vague notion of the “ideal” and Inverdale seemingly fell for the trick.

Some photographers are beginning to questioning these ideals. Look, for instance, at Rion Sabean’s5 “Men-Ups”.6 Sabean asked men to pose in “typical” female postures. The result is hilarious, but it also questions our ideals. Why do women have to pose like that? Is that the image a “looker”? And why do we not blink when we see a young woman pose the way Sabean asked his male models to do? Are we so conditioned that we do not see the work of the director, the photographer and the make-up artist when we look at highly stylised photographs?


Less comical, but equally effective, is a study done by the Spanish photographer Jon Uriarte who asked a number of men to pose in a girlfriend’s clothing.7

Sabean and Uriarte both ask us to look at the “typical” female pose in a brand new way.

The stark difference between stereotypical male and female poses can sometimes be seen in the fashion industry, as exposed by the Swedish blogger Emelie Eriksson. Erikson wrote an angry blog about the different ways unisex shirts are modelled by male and female models.8 (Beware, the females often do not have pants on; the link is not to be viewed in a public space or at work.)

Eriksson targeted the clothing company American Apparel. In fairness I need to report that I could not find similar poses on their website while writing this article, but I do know it is a brand that likes shocking advertisements; it could well be that they wilfully used and abused the stereotypes.


The selfie, the self and the sexual me
The Mail & Guardian9 recently published an interesting opinion piece about the selfie – for the uninitiated, a selfie is a self-portrait (mostly taken with a cell phone).

Actor Riaan Visman

Thanks to fairly decent cell phone cameras and the social media, the selfie has become a global institution. Young men and women frequently take pictures of themselves and instantly post them to sites like Facebook and Twitter (and many others).

Stephanie Badenhorst

The journalist bemoans the sexual nature of many of these self-taken photographs. But why should that be a problem? Do most animals, thanks to evolution, not sexualise themselves? It is a way to advertise ourselves to potential mates.

I do not think that self-sexualisation is so bad. The problem lies in the eyes of the beholder. To John Inverdale the extremely athletic Marion did not cast herself in the image of his stereotypical “looker”; to him the media image created by the Sharapova machine ticked the boxes. Sadly, that leaves him a poorer person.


Do I create a “looker” every time someone comes for a shoot? No. I rather try to create an image that the model would like to have of her- or himself – a bit like a selfie shot by a professional.


I do indulge in nude and semi-nude photography, and I do shoot men and women in sexual positions (if they are old enough), if that is what they want.

Nude in Limpopo

In the end nudity is not necessarily sexual,10 nor is sexuality limited to portraying naked flesh. A still photograph, like a movie, has to be shot and directed to show what the client wants, not necessarily what the client thinks she or he wants.

The camera, and in my case, the cameraman, has a sexual eye. I make no bones about it, and I discuss it with my models. I hardly ever work with a model while we are alone, simply because we can push the envelope when there are others around.


Even in ballet the (male) gaze of the choreographer recently caused an uproar. Judith Mackrell reported on Tamara Rojo,11 artistic director of the English National Ballet, comparing the attitude of male choreographers with that of makers of pornography. Her take was simple: Men dominate the choreography of ballet and they simply cast and choreograph young male and female dancers in ways to satisfy their own sexual needs. And women? Apparently women choreograph from an emotional centre; men tend to concentrate on visuals and technique.


It is interesting to see how people publish themselves. The well-loved Afrikaans poet Bibi Slippers is a frequent publisher of selfies. Hers are stylised and often not overtly sexual in nature; but ask any Belieber, and they will tell you that Justin Bieber regularly posts selfies of his bare chest.


In Sewe dae, a thriller by Deon Meyer,12 the murdered woman has erotic pictures of herself in a drawer next to her bed. When Bennie Griesel, the detective, asks a female colleague why she would spend a lot of money on having overtly sexual pictures of herself taken in an expensive studio, the colleague says it is a woman thing which he would not understand.

That is not true. I have men asking me for pictures too; and, yes, some men want pictures of a sexual nature.

Jabu: even at age nine he knew how he wanted to be portrayed

I recently did an intimate shoot for two women (not portrayed in this article). The younger of the two loved stimulating her partner while I was watching, but time and again I had to ask her to chill a little – the camera does not pick up on feelings of arousal, it only shows what can be seen. And so I, the heterosexual cameraman, had to direct their love scenes. I knew what she wanted to portray – we all have lesbian porn available on the internet,  and the only way I could make her look like the girls on the website was to tell her how to place her hands, where to place them, how to twist her body and where her nipples should be.

I take the same care when I shoot fully clothed people who are conservative. Apart from my own family, the subjects I have photographed over the longest period belong to a Muslim family (not portrayed in this article). They will never pose nude for me, but they do not need to. I shoot them as they are comfortable. I find their beauty as they feel they want to be portrayed. The mother is so comfortable around me that she even removes her doek (head scarf) in my presence – and in front of my lens. The first time she did that, I was more touched than I have ever been by any person posing in the nude for me. With her legs, arms and body completely covered, she stood more naked before me on that day than anyone else has ever done.


It is in the eye of the editor
Building a relationship with a model is important. Understanding the model’s needs is equally important – and that is often the most difficult part of any shoot.


In the movie Monsters University the little one-eyed blob, Mike Wazowski, took his “loser” buddies to the scare floor to look at the meanest of monsters. He asked them, “What do they have in common?” The answer was simple: “Nothing.” To be a good scarer each of those monsters had to dig deep inside themselves to unleash that something that would make kids scream.


Please pick up a fashion magazine and look carefully at the pictures of the various models, women and men, to find what they have in common. The answer is not “nothing”; it is even simpler: they have all been photographed in carefully controlled and scripted conditions and the photographs have all been rendered by professionals to make them look the way they do.


I am a photographer and I love helping women and men, old and young, see themselves as they are: beautiful.


Beauty starts on the inside. I cannot create beauty. I can merely help models see themselves as they hopefully want to be seen.


Lenina taught me so much.

She is not in love with me, and this could, therefore, not be a letter to her. It would have been inappropriate. But I can love her freckles for what they have taught me.


This could also have been a love letter to all the girls and boys whose beauty is not apparent to strange people like John Inverdale. Some, like Marion Bartoli, can shrug it off. Others, like Lenina, can teach camera crews how to create images which correspond to their inner beauty.


I unashamedly try to produce photographs that make people look good. I extend the selfie by allowing the model to get the same treatment that Maria Sharapova would.


Finally, the full stops
The idea of calling freckles full stops is not original. The Swiss-born photographer Reto Caduff13 created a book about people with freckles. He called it Freckles, but when the German newspaper Bild reviewed it, they did so under the heading “Die schönsten Punkte der Welt”,14 meaning “The most beautiful full stops in the world”.

When I sent Lenina the link, I included a note saying, “Not true, I have photographed the most beautiful full stops in the world.”


Text and photographs: Izak de Vries

1 Gold, Tanya. 2013. Bartoli: Sexism in sport is spite and lust. Mail & Guardian, 12 July 2013. http://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-12-00-sexism-in-sport-is-spite-and-lust.

2 Fleming, Amy. 2013. Beauty: Seeing is not always believing. Mail & Guardian, 5 July 2013. http://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-05-00-beauty-seeing-is-not-always-believing.

3 Fleming, Amy. 2013. Beauty: Seeing is not always believing. Mail & Guardian, 5 July 2013.  http://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-05-00-beauty-seeing-is-not-always-believing.

6 Lynch, EDW. Men-Ups, Men Posing like Classic Female Pin-Up Models. Laughing squid, 20 October 2011. http://laughingsquid.com/men-ups-men-posing-like-classic-female-pin-up-models.

7 Uriarte, Jon. 2013. Wann ist ein Mann ein Mann? Bild, 11 July 2013. http://www.stern.de/fotografie/spanisches-foto-projekt-wann-ist-ein-mann-ein-mann-2036377.html.

8 Eriksson, Emelie Frida. 2013. American Apparel really know about that “unisex” thing. Damn well. En blommig tekopp. 2013. http://enblommigtekopp.se/2013/may/american-apparel-really-know-about-that-unisex-thing-damn-well-english-version.html.

9 Anon. 2013. How selfies became a global phenomenon. Mail & Guardian, 15 July 2013.http://women.mg.co.za/how-selfies-became-a-global-phenomenon.

10 Warner, Carl. 2013. Wenn Körper eine Landschaft formen. Bild, 31 July 2013.  http://www.stern.de/fotografie/bodyscapes-wenn-koerper-eine-landschaft-formen-2045241.html.

11 Mackrell, Judith. 2013. Porn, pliés and pirouettes. Mail & Guardian, 26 July 2013. http://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-26-00-porn-plies-and-pirouettes.

12 Meyer, Deon. 2011. Sewe dae. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau.

14  Albers, Sophie and Janna Frohnhaus. 2012. Die schönsten Punkte der Welt. Bild, 8 December 2012. http://www.stern.de/fotografie/fotoband-freckles-die-schoensten-punkte-der-welt-1933027.html.

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