During the Wellcome Photography Prize submission period, which closes 17 December 2018, British Journal of Photography is profiling photographers who are exploring the importance of health in society and the impact health issues have on people and communities worldwide. In line with the Social Perspectives category, BJP spoke to Sophie Harris-Taylor about her series on Epidermis.
Throughout her teens and early-20s Sophie Harris-Taylor suffered from severe acne. “At the time I felt shame and embarrassment,” says the London-based photographer. “It affected my self esteem in those critical years when you are desperately trying to fit in.” It was this experience that prompted Harris-Taylor’s latest project. Epidermis comprises a series of portraits of women with varying skin conditions. Photographed in natural light in the intimacy of Harris-Taylor’s home studio, the images are striking in their honest and relatable nature.
In each portrait, a young woman stands topless; her face make-up free. There are no studio lights or exaggerated expressions. “I didn’t want to shock,” says Harris-Taylor speaking of her approach. “The photographs are a beauty shoot first and an exploration of skin second.” Initially Harris-Taylor intended to only photograph women with acne but there was a natural overlap with other conditions. “Acne, rosacea and eczema are all relatively common and relatable – they are not the most unusual or shocking of conditions,” says Harris-Taylor. “We are often drawn to extremes, and in this instance I didn’t think that would be helpful.”
Although the portraits themselves highlight the physical effects of skin conditions, the wider project aims to shed light on the impact it can have on one’s self esteem and mental health. The face is the one part of the body it is difficult to hide and, for a number of the women that feature in Harris-Taylor’s series, foundation and concealer act as a protective armour. When leaving the house without applying make-up is unthinkable, standing bare-skinned in front of a camera demands extraordinary courage. “Being photographed often means the subject is in a vulnerable position,” accepts Harris-Taylor. “But, what started out as a nerve-wracking shoot for many, often ended up being individually liberating and empowering.”
In recent years, various body positivity movements have forced the media to feature and embrace a wider variety of body shapes and sizes. “I think a lot of this is down to social media and giving people a platform to dictate their own concerns,” reflects Harris-Taylor. Yet this has only marginally extended to skin.“We have started to see a smaller movement in the media. Winnie Harlow, one of the biggest fashion models, has spoken out about Vitiligo and there has been instances of cellulite and stretch marks being included in shoots,” says Harris-Taylor. “However, acne and other conditions are still fairly undiscussed. I don’t know why this is. It might be because it can be misperceived as somehow connected to dirtiness and a lack of hygiene, as if the person is at fault. We need to be more educated about skin conditions. The greater variety of skin types we see, the less of a stigma they will be.”
Harris-Taylor hopes that the series will help other women with conditions to feel empowered and comfortable in their own skin. “Perhaps the best way to change society’s attitudes is through acceptance,” she says, “and this first needs to come from individuals themselves.” With the project being so personal in nature, it was important for Harris-Taylor to listen to the women’s varying experiences as well as to share her own. Below we share several extracts from the interviews Harris-Taylor conducted while photographing each of the women.
I’m learning to leave the house without makeup but I always feel weird without it. I feel like people are focusing on my acne marks. I always exaggerate with my American accent so people can focus on that instead of my skin.
It’s affected my confidence massively, to the point where I feel extremely self conscious in social situations and often avoid going out with friends if I know the lighting will accentuate my acne – bright lights in a club, for example – and has worsened my anxiety in general. It sounds quite trivial but as someone with low confidence already, having bad skin often leaves me worrying about if others are staring at me, and I find a lot of my time is occupied with negative thoughts about my self image – something I know is really unhealthy and I’d actively love to alter.
It definitely took a toll on my self esteem growing up, to the point where I was embarrassed to even step foot outside my house. The thought of people looking at all the ‘problems’ on my face gave me anxiety. I just wanted to hide my face from everyone. I became obsessed with constantly trying new methods that would potentially cure my skin concerns. I would tell myself that once I got clear beautiful skin, I’d feel better about myself.
My skin has always affected me. I’ve always been a naturally confident person in every other aspect of my life but if I think someone is looking at or judging my skin I will instantly feel self-conscious. I wear make up most days if I’m going out or going to work. I meet lots of new people every day working as a barista and my face is the first thing they see about me and I want people to see past my acne.
Words: Anya Lawrence
The Wellcome Photography Prize’s Social Perspectives category highlights work that explores how health and illness affect the way we live. Each category winner will receive £1,250 and be featured in a London exhibition; the overall winner will receive £15,000. Entry is free and the deadline for submissions is 17 December 2018.