We asked freelance journalist Esther Honig about her viral photo series.
Esther Honig is an explorer of beauty on a global scale. A freelance journalist and social media manager by day, Honig is frequently subject to manipulated photos across the web, and came up with the idea to showcase varying interpretations of aesthetics from culture to culture. In a photo series titled Before and After—which went viral in 2014 and was getting covered all over the web—she made a simple request to graphic designers from 25 different countries:
“Hi my name is Esther Honig and I would like you to enhance this image [of me] using Photoshop. I trust you to take whatever steps you see necessary. Make me look beautiful.”
The results from each country’s designer are stunningly different. Eye color, clothing, hair, even the shade of her skin were subjected to the digital scalpels of the world’s graphic artists. Unsurprisingly, Pakistani Honig, Serbian Honig, and Filipino Honig look wildly different. Each detail may reveal something about the culture where the designer comes from—or maybe just his or her personal valuation of beauty. "Even though there were over arching themes to beauty," Honig told us, "individuals, no matter their culture, had different perspectives of what the word beautiful means."
The brain (and face) behind this project spoke in depth to The Creators Project about the process of being intimately reinterpreted more than 20 times over, the influence of Photoshop in modern society, and what she’s learned from the process.
The Creators Project: What inspired the photo series Before and After? Was there any photo spread or clearly-Photoshopped project that set off the spark?
Esther Honig: I wanted to insert myself into the conversation and use my own image as a baseline for the experiment. New stories and image collections that examine the implications of Photoshop pop up online constantly. I wouldn’t say there was one particular story that inspired me, rather I realized there was a way for me to be a part of that conversation literally. I’m an avid reader and digital consumer so I’ve read plenty about how Photoshop generates images of unobtainable beauty. What hasn’t been discussed is how standards of the unobtainable vary from person to person, and culture to culture.
The idea came to me at my day job I worked as a social media manager for a local startup. My boss introduced me to Fiverr, an international freelancing platform that allows you to hire freelance workers from around the world to complete anything from graphic design, voice-overs, animations to translations. He asked me to use the site in order to contract cheap work for whatever projects I might be assigned. I familiarized myself with the platform and stumbled upon hundreds of individuals from more than a dozen countries offering their services in Photoshop. It occurred to me that in this pool of workers, each individual had an aesthetic bias. If I sent a few of them the same image they were bound to alter it in contrasting ways, influenced by their cultural and personal concept of beauty. The relatively recent introduction of outsourced freelancing sites would make an experiment like this possibly for the first time.
I began by sending my image out to maybe four or five freelancers at a time and in every instance I received intriguing products. Though I did not see the patterns or the presumed archetypes of beauty that I had expected, I decided to make this into a projectexamining how the standards of unobtainable beauty vary across cultures on a global level.
Can you tell us about the conversations you had with the global collaborators? Was it as simple as the request "make me beautiful with Photoshop" or did you give them a broader prompt? How did you choose the participants?
This was the request that I sent them initially:
“Hi my name is Esther Honig and I would like you to enhance this image using Photoshop. I trust you to take whatever steps you see necessary. Make me look beautiful.”
In a few cases the freelancer wanted me to send them an image that they could use as an example. I told them to imagine how my photo would be altered for publication in a fashion magazine in their country. I wanted my request to be as open ended as possible in order to give them complete creative freedom. I wanted their work to be authentic with as little influence as possible.
I chose the freelancers at random. Many of their profiles on Fiverr show images from their “portfolio” but some of those images must have been pasted from other websites. It was hit or miss. I would contract someone to Photoshop my image- one person would add a filter and a little airbrush while others really went all out. I’ve chosen the images that were more manipulated to publish for my collection. I wanted to get a broad representation, and work with individuals in as many countries as possible. Every time I spotted a freelancer from a country I hadn’t collected from, I’d nab them.
How do you feel about the project now that it's complete? Did it turn out as you imagined?
No, it didn’t turn out at all like I planned. I didn’t see the patterns that I had expected and I almost walked away from the project altogether. Then I started to look at it from a different angle; these individuals were not only pulling from their cultural bias of beauty but also from their personal aesthetics. It started me thinking that even though there were over arching themes to beauty, individuals, no matter their culture, had different perspectives of what the word “beautiful” means.
What was the most challenging part of the project? How did you deal with language barriers? Did anybody have difficulty creating what you wanted from them?
I do think language was a barrier in the creation of these images. When you’re communicating over indirect messaging you can’t really be sure what the other person understands. For the most part I was able to write in English with each freelancer, though in some instances I’m pretty sure they were using Google translate.
I had some people send me images that they hadn’t altered much at all. They might have applied a filter or had done some clone brushing, but I still view those as valid representations of this project, they are just less interesting to look at.
Has this project revealed or highlighted any cultural differences or varied perceptions of beauty from around the globe that you didn't expect? Did the results reinforce any preconceived notions you might have had about how people across the world value aesthetics? Did an image from any country in particular surprise you?
It's important to remember that each photo has been altered by an individual. It's hard to know what is cultural and what is personal—that's what's so intriguing, sorting out the possible influences. Many of the photos seem to draw upon different eras—stuck in certain times or modes—airbrushed 70's or glam rock 80's. It starts to reveal when different ideals of beauty reached different places on our planet, and then how they got co-opted and morphed.
Do you have any favorite altered images of yourself? Why? What about least favorites?
Morocco sent the most dynamic image. The creator’s choice to dress me in a Hijab introduced a new element to the notion of beauty and religious customs I hadn’t really considered. In turn the image I received from the U.S. (with the blond hair) made me shriek when I first opened it. It has been manipulated so radically that I felt like I was looking in the mirror but didn’t recognize the face.
What have you personally learned from the project? Do you feel it’s changed your perception of yourself?
Flipping through the collection of Before and After, one may spot trends in models of beauty that represent each designer’s culture of origin, but that is entirely based on one’s own interpretation. Overall what I’ve learned from this project is that Photoshop allows us to achieve our unattainable standards of beauty. When we compare those standards on a global scale, achieving the ideal remains all that more elusive. It almost neutralizes the belief in a universal beauty.
To be honest this project has, in some ways, affected my perception of myself. I voluntarily sought out this opportunity and was pleased with how it turned out, but it did make me more aware of certain things like the uneven tone of my skin, which was touched up by nearly every editor. It also reminded me that my eyebrows are thicker than normal as they were often thinned and colored.
Before and After was a very different process compared to my reporting work. I’ve found a special spot between self reflection, social commentary, and photo journalism that is made for social media channels. In the future I’d like to translate more of my work as a journalist on to these expanding platforms. After all, this seems to be the future of how we interact and discover information.
What ideas are you playing with for your next project? How has Before and After influenced your future plans?
Every hour strangers send me a dozen new images where they’ve taken my original photo off line and reworked it for me as a ‘courtesy.' The original purpose has been compromised for the most part, as the new alterations have a foundation to build off of within the articles posted about the project. This does not negate the additions as they are still interesting and insightful in their own right. The people sending the new images may have even taken a more in depth look into their own cultural and personal views of beauty. There’s definitely the potential to expand on this project. I’ve considered how I might restructure the project to include say an image of someone else or with Photoshop professionals as opposed to the amateur freelancers I found online.
Images courtesy of the artist. h/t DesignBoom