how one photographer’s struggle with acne inspired her most vulnerable portrait series yet
In her latest photographic series, Epidermis, Sophie Harris-Taylor takes beautiful portraits of women who suffer from bad skin. Here she shares her experience.
Photography Sophie Harris-Taylor
Most of my personal projects are brought about by my own life experience, dealing with both the familiar and unobserved. As a photographer, I use people to express my own pre-occupations and concerns. When I think about it throughout my work there is always some element of my own vulnerability. A big part of it is about capturing something honest and truthful in some shape or form. I want to make people feel good, essentially. All women, in fact.
My latest project Epidermis is about acne. As someone who’s struggled to feel confident within myself, I’m pretty invested in body positivity as a whole. I suffered terrible acne throughout my teenage years and early 20s. This made me feel like I stood out in those awkward years when I was desperately trying to fit in. As a young girl, the images, films and magazines that I saw and read showed these unrealistic representations of beauty. If you were far from that, what hope did you have?
"Skin positivity is about embracing all skin types and actually saying you don’t have to have a certain type of skin to be beautiful."
Despite all of the progress around body positivity in recent years, when I started the project the one area that still seemed taboo was skin. In the last couple of months I’ve been working on this that seems to have started to change, which is a really great thing. Skin positivity is about embracing all skin types and actually saying you don’t have to have a certain type of skin to be beautiful. Perhaps this sounds obvious but our skin’s the most exterior part of us, so we should really be more comfortable with this part of us than any other.
For Epidermis, I wanted to shoot in the style of a traditional beauty editorial; I quite liked the idea of juxtaposing the style and subject -- something traditional seen as in opposition to classical beauty. I photographed all the women in my home studio; I shoot with natural light and firstly wanted to make the women feel as comfortable in front of me as possible. We would talk, get to know one another and share our skin stories. Some of these women had never left the house without their make-up on before, so that was daunting enough for them and most of them were unfamiliar with being in front of the camera. I think being photographed often means the subject is in quite a vulnerable position, and I always try to ensure sure they feel comfortable in their environment. What might start out as a nervous shoot, often ends up to be liberating and empowering.
"Some of these women had never left the house without their make-up on before, so that was daunting enough for them and most of them were unfamiliar with being in front of the camera."
The most important aspect was to keep things really natural. I didn’t want to shock. I wanted it to be seen as a beauty shoot first and an exploration of skin second, showing a range of women with very subtle skin conditions and with more noticeable ones. I’ve felt when it comes to body types, we’ve seen the industry swing one way or the other, idealise the two extremes to name the obvious; the ultra thin catwalk model and plus size models, both not necessarily realistic. But both draw attention and create an impact. I think there’s a risk of fetishisation. With this series I kind of just wanted it to seem normal.
The most important thing I learnt was that everyone sees their skin condition as so much more significant than it really is, I don’t mean to minimise how much it can affect people, but I had so many responses from people telling me how terrible their skin was and whether they would be suitable for the project -- when they sent me over photos all I could see was flawless skin. I think it made me realise that we are much more critical and aware of our own supposed ‘imperfections’ than anyone else. You can only assume this is made worse by the unrealistic standards we see represented in the world around us.
When it comes to acne and how we view it, there seems to be a lot of misconceptions and stigmas underpinning the conversation . I think a lot of people think of acne as something that just teenagers get. Yes, it’s most common in teens, however it can affect people of any age and there’s not one cause and one solution. It’s certainly not something that can just be solved overnight. There’s also lot of misconceptions about hygiene, cleanliness and diet -- it can be seen as in some way ‘dirty’ or ‘gross’ and people are often made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. I don’t know how long this stigma has been around, but even on the Clearasil adverts the spots are fake and almost invisible.
It makes you think: wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where skin types and bodies are not so generic and beauty becomes much more varied? A bit like art, beauty is so subjective but it always feels like there’s a bit of a herd mentality. That said, I think more so than ever the younger generation are pushing boundaries, not wanting to conform to ‘normality’. Perhaps this is just a natural progression from the huge strides that have been made in the past. I think also we are seeing it more now than ever because of social media, where people feel more comfortable having a voice.
"Beauty comes from within and the earlier you can learn that the better."
To me beauty is confidence, to be confident and comfortable within your own skin is one of the most attractive things. We talk so much about beauty as a physical attribute, but actually, and this sounds super corny, beauty comes from within and the earlier you can learn that the better. Be a beautiful friend, be kind, be thoughtful, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how physically conventionally beautiful you are, your loved ones love you for your individuality, not for the way in which you conform.