Photography bears witness to the world in which we live, transforming now only how we see, but also how we think. It’s most primal power lies in the fact that you simply cannot unsee what it has shown: for better or for worse, it makes the invisible known.
With portraiture, photography adopts a humanizing approach: allowing us to gaze upon the other and discover what connections lie beneath the surface of the flesh and in the well of spirit. To stare is an act of aggression which the photograph neutralizes: it invites us to look tirelessly at someone who is not us, and consider both our relation to them and them in their own right, discovering captivating moments of beauty wherever they may lie.
In the series Altered, Manon Ouimet taps into the therapeutic power of photography to help people living with disfigurement reimagine themselves. The people pictured here, fully in the nude, have unwillingly embarked upon life-changing body alterations due to illness, war, accidents, and violence. Where disfigurement was once shunned and erased, they are now given the same care and sensitivity of any other great portrait subject.
The result is a fascinating look at the way in which visibility transforms our perceptions about beauty, wholeness, and humanity — while providing the subjects themselves with the opportunity to reveal a side of themselves that they generally hide from the world, as an integral part of their path to healing and self discovery. Here Ouimet shares her work championing the power, beauty, and dignity of fearless self-expression.
To begin, could you share a little background on how you got involved in photography, what made you realise it was a path you wanted to pursue, and some of the artists whose work inspires you?
“My first photographic commission was to take portraits of people who were lost in love and seeking to find it. For just over a year, I spent my weekends entering these people’s lives and discovered how to use the camera as a means to communicate and represent the positives in people. My pursuit of photography came from the openness of others and the connections that have come from it.
“I repeatedly return to the likes of Irving Penn for his aesthetic and portrait genius, Sally Mann for her candid construed explorations of the honesty of life and its final destination, Diane Arbus for her investigation of ‘taboo’ subject matters and Jo Spence for using photography as a therapeutic tool.”
What was the inspiration to create Altered??
“The genesis of Altered has many roots; I worked closely with The Drive Project on a campaign to help reintroduce veterans into working industries, many of whom are members of BLESMA, The Limbless Veterans. It brought to my attention the troubles that a group of people can have reintegrating into society. At the same time, I was working in London where all the major acid attacks occurred, and though not directly affected by these grotesque acts, my heart bled for the people subjected to the horror.
“I also happened to be reading Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth, which was also hugely pertinent. My attention was very quickly guided to people with altered identities and how they are treated in society, prompting a desire to encourage a change in perception to those who deem others as different. The goal is to move away from notions of pity and disempowerment and to portray courage, honesty, beauty and strength.”
What made you realize that nudity would be the best way to explore each subject in portraiture?
“The idea came naturally when considering a classical approach to beauty, its representation in the form of nude subjects for millennia. Why not continue this tradition when developing an idea that aims to expand the collective conscience and give platform to people who aren’t often displayed in this way?
“The therapeutic aspect also felt important. Many of the people I photographed had not had their picture taken for a long time and were terrified of looking at themselves. It’s daunting enough thinking that you’d be photographed naked, let alone after an alteration that left you questioning your visual identity. So to work with people to continue this process of healing and let them see their beauty the way I saw it was incredibly special and so many people I photographed talked about this afterwards. Essentially there is nothing shameful or bizarre about being naked. All of us have a body, all of us different. It feels exciting to be displaying a series of people I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know in this way.”
How did you find your subjects?
“I found most of my subjects through social media, whilst word of mouth had its part to play. Each sitter had a desire to be seen and question how they are seen. Andrew, one of the sitters, said, ‘Putting myself in front of a photographer, when part of me no longer exists, was for me about seeing how the world sees me. I no longer have all of the body I was born with, how does that look through someone else eyes?’
“All the subjects are connected by the fact they have experienced radically life-changing body alterations due to forms of violence ranging from health to war, to self-harm. They are also connected by this desire to self-explore and embrace their ‘new’ identity. Many of the sitters have been living with their altered identities for years but only now are ready to explore this part of them.”
Could you speak about the process for creating a portrait?
“There is no one way of creating a portrait — each time is different, each person’s individual story adding a dimension to the happening. The process is often like a dance: you need to find synchronization to achieve the moment. It’s a push and pull of energy. The photographer acts as a platform to reflect and encourage but to also participate in the sitter’s vulnerability. My job is to guide my sitters into a position of comfort and freedom within the parameters of the studio space, ad hopefully beyond.
“I chose to photograph my sitters in a controlled studio environment to remove the context of any surroundings and their association and to create an equal and neutral platform. As Richard Avedon says, ‘It isolates people from their environment. They become in a sense…symbolic of themselves.’ No societal structure, no socioeconomic relevance, no gender or sexuality judgment, no age bias; equality and that unity in diversity is powerful and beautiful.”
Could you speak about how your subjects responded to this process?
“Each studio session had its own emotional journey. For some, it nurtured their confidence, whilst for others gave them a feeling of being worthy and valued. What became evident very early on was the power of photography as a therapeutic tool. The process of the sessions are extremely cathartic for the sitters. I don’t think it was easy for each person but ultimately it helped every sitter to explore themselves and to embrace who they are now.
“Tim, one of the sitters in the series, said, ‘The body and its form are mostly seen as a disfiguration once you lose a part of your body… but this process really has helped me to embrace who I am. Another turning point on my road of self-discovery.’”
How does the act of looking at body disfigurement open up the spectrum of our emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic responses?
“I’ve spent a lot of time researching the impact of visual stimuli of stigmatized appearances and aesthetic appreciation whereby a correlation can be drawn with exposure over time; what I like to call aesthetic exposure. This is an aspect of the project that is fundamental to its continuation. Altered is a series made up of 30+ prints and growing. It seeks to reframe and reimagine moving beyond the socially projected stigma associated with that which is deemed to be ‘disabled’, ‘disfigured’ and ‘disempowered’. My hope is for the viewer to explore themselves through the prism of another. What do they have in common? Physically, intellectually, psychologically, spiritually? We are all human and therefore all deserve equal respect.”
Could you speak about the power of photography to transform our perceptions of marginalized groups and center their narratives on their terms?
“The ultimate aim is to get to a world where we don’t categorize any person by their background or appearance, to treat each person equally and celebrate them for who they are as part of this beautiful world. The steps to get there are indeed about transforming perceptions of marginalized groups and that’s by providing a fair representation of their story that precedes them. Prejudice is simply fear based on a lack of understanding of somebody’s story. Photography like mine invites the viewer not just to look but to participate: to sympathize or empathize, expand their love for fellow humans and welcome with open arms an understanding that they themselves would want for them.
“Each series like this, each community project, each storytelling in any platform is there to capture the voices that tell these narratives and inspire the audience to engage, join and harmonize. As Irving Penn said, ‘A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.’”
All images: © Manon Ouimet