I was in my mid thirties when I began work on Love Me, and I think at that age you begin to realise that you will not be young forever, that your body is not fully under your control. I had also a growing sense of our culture reaching a fever-pitch of self-consciousness, driven by an industry that breeds insecurity in order to sell us a ‘cure’. Our basic human need for acceptance, our competitiveness, vanity and the ultimate need to be noticed and loved has been exploited, and we have created a world in which there are enormous social, psychological and economic rewards and penalties attached to the way we look.
I travel quite a lot, and I had noticed that not only were places beginning to look the same, but people were beginning to look more similar too. Globalization hasn’t just given us Starbucks in Beijing and shopping malls in Africa, it is also creating an eerily homogenized look. I am fascinated and appalled at the commercially-driven export of ideals. Beauty is a $160 billion-a-year global industry. The worldwide pursuit of body improvement has become like a new religion. The modern Western beauty ideal has been sold to us, and is now being packaged and exported globally like a crude univeral brand.
The first image I took for this project was in Iran. I had heard that there were more nose-jobs being performed in Tehran than in Los Angeles, but I wasn’t sure if it was true. I pitched the idea to a number of but nobody was confident that the story could be done successfully and consequently were reluctant to offer any money. When I arrived in Iran, I was amazed. My interpreter had had a nose job, as had her mother, her sister, and her two best friends. People were proudly walking in the streets with bandaged noses, excited to be the new owners of small, chiselled American-style noses. This really launched the idea for the project for me, and inspired me to look more in-depth.
I wanted to produce a body of work that encourages every one of us to question our own place in a culture that compels us to constantly judge, and be judged, by our appearance. I imagined the project in some way like a body of evidence, perhaps for a future generation, to see a point in history where the abnormal became normal, or at least normalized. The work is a reflection on cultural brainwashing, and a reminder that our behaviour has become quite extraordinary without us really noticing it. The subjects in Love Me may appear willing participants in an omnipresent culture of bodily improvement, but they are also hapless victims – at the mercy of larger social forces and locked into an insatiable craving for approval.
I told my subjects that I was working on a book about the power of global beauty industry. Some people assumed it to be a positive angle, others not. Few really asked for more information. It always surprises me how little people ask questions.
Photography and film play a vital part in the contempory depiction of beauty and the way it is used by the beauty industry is instrumental in its huge commercial success. The beauty industry could not exist as it does today without photography as its main tool, and popular idealised notions of ‘beauty’ would not exist on such a global scale without the seductive power of photography and the moving image. Today our eyes and brains are conditioned and programmed from a very early age.
I think that humans may have developed a self-consciousness and a sense of attractiveness very early in their historical development. It’s a very complicated and contentious area – are we genetically hard-wired to be attracted to ‘beautiful’ mates? Is ‘beauty’ a natural formula, a set of characteristics and proportions, dictated by nature? Or are we culturally brainwashed and conditioned into believing certain traits are beautiful, and others are not?
But let us accept for a moment that perhaps at some point we humans developed a conscious sense of aesthetics, of beauty…of what we are attracted to. Previously our role models – those we held up as embodying our cultural ideals – were local to us. But as our mass media has expanded, as multi-national corporations have grown in power and influence, as out advertising industries have spread their message globally, an insidious form of globalization has taken place. And a narrow, largely white, Western beauty ideal has been packaged and exported to every corner of the world, through the stylized constructs of MTV, the airbrushed perfection of the beauty industry’s billboard advertising campaigns, and throught the pages of a million magazine pages that consciously and unconsciously sell and support this message.
The driving force behind this trend is commercialism. If you can sell the idea of one prescriptive ‘look’ then you can sell people the products and services to help them achieve, or attempt them to achieve, this ideal. That may mean straightening and lightening your hair, enlarging your breasts, removing the hair from your body, lightening your skin, reducing your body size, and trying, against all the odds, to remain young looking.
The industry breeds insecurity, and then sells a ‘cure’, and the result is a terrible form of homogenized conformity that can also lead to a denial of natural ethnic characteristics. Historically the beauty industry have been incredibly successful in breeding insecurity and competitiveness in women, and in the last decade they have turned their attention to men. It is a whole new area of growth for the industry, a largely unexploited market. Men are now being sold role models that ultimately make them more vain, more self-conscious, and more dissastisfied with themselves.
In Brazil I observed poor women from the favellas travel to meet Dr. Pitanguy, the nations best known and richest plastic surgeon. Once a month he offers free plastic surgery to the poor. But this is a very unusual situation. Mostly, poor people who are convinced that they need plastic surgery are compelled to go to very cheap surgeons without full medical back-up, and the risks increase, yes. When people start to go to back-street unlicenced clinics, then things get really bad. In Mexico people have been known to inject silicone directly into to their bodies, which can result in severe medical problems. In Florida, USA, they found the deomposing body of a woman hidden in the basement of an unlicensed cosmetic surgeon. Her body was only identified by the serial number on her breast implants.
ZED NELSON lives in London. His work has been published and exhibited worldwide. Having gained recognition and major awards as a documentary photographer working in some of the most troubled areas of the world, Nelson has increasingly turned his focus on Western society, adopting an increasingly conceptual approach to reflect on contemporary social issues.
Love Me was recently nominated for the 2011 Deutsche Borse Photography Prize, short-listed for the Leica European Publishers Award for Photography, and received First Prize in the 2010 Pictures of the Year International awards.
Previous awards include the Visa d’Or, France; First Prize in World Press Photo Competition; and the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, USA.
Nelson’s work has been exhibited at Tate Britain, the ICA and the National Portrait Gallery, and is in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Nelson has had solo shows in London, Stockholm and New York.
To view more of Nelson’s work visit his website.