South African photographer Jodi Bieber's Real Beauty series was inspired by a Dove advertising campaign that put ordinary women of all shapes and sizes on the billboards. Bieber translated the idea into a South African context and encouraged women of black, white, Asian and coloured backgrounds to take part. In so doing, she has put the spotlight on the way that diverse notions of feminine beauty converge and diverge in her multicultural homeland.
In this film Bieber also talks about the iconic Time Magazine cover of Afghani woman, Bibi Aisha which recently won the accolade of Photograph of the Year in the World Press Awards.
Jodi Bieber: I love putting my images out in the world and I can say that when Real Beauty was shown at the Goodman Gallery there wasn’t a single person that didn’t have a comment. And as an artist, photographer, I cannot control how you think it and you are going to think completely differently to, to someone else; it depends on your frame of reference, it depends on your culture, it depends on many many things and from my side I think that’s absolutely fabulous. Everyone comes from a different point of view and I’d rather have the point of view than no point of view at all.
It’s funny, I’m always nervous when I start off because I don’t know really how it’s going to work out or how I’m really going to really approach it. But I come from a background that’s more documentary orientated and to keep myself going I wanted to. I knew I wanted to create portraits so it was a matter of how was I going access different women. And as you’ve seen, well, South Africa is culturally diverse. People are very different, living very different lives so I knew that I wanted to get a diversity of people. The only restriction that I said to women that I wanted to photograph them in their homes because I feel that tells so much about a person. And the way they chose to stand was very much their choice because I could never tell someone how to stand, and also an element of fantasy comes in there, you know, and we’ve grown up with magazines as young women so for example one woman I photographed she invited seven of her friends to the shoot, they had wine and I thought, ‘Oh I’m a serious photographer, you know, what’s going on?’ And it was actually beautiful because she said to them, 'How should I pose?’, and basically they posed against the wall and you could see they were referencing music videos so I think the poses also says a lot about each individual woman.
The issues surrounding black women to white women to coloured women to Indian women are very, very different. They’re not the same. In our culture - white culture, it's about we want to be in a way stick-thin. But in black culture it's something very different - being voluptuous is beautiful. My project is not about just being comfortable with yourself, it deals with issues of HIV/AIDS, it deals with issues of having a lighter skin. That maybe if you have a lighter skin as a black women you’re perceived as more beautiful so I knew that I had to go into different communities to reach the people that I wanted to photograph.
Gail Smith: I did have some reservations, I mean like most women I’m not entirely comfortable with my body, you know, always think I’d be happier if I was thinner. I’d be happier if I had a flat stomach, you know. I did have some concerns with it but I also trusted Jodie enough that if I absolutely hated it and felt exposed that I could say, 'Hey you know I had second thoughts about this'. I didn’t feel...I didn’t feel completely out of control of the project.
JB: So Gail, is actually, she’s a writer. She’s very lively, and she has big opinions and actually, you know, it wasn’t always easy. I think the most difficult people to photograph for my project were really the people that I, in some way, I had a connection with.
GS: Even though I think there’s a lot of pressure for women to conform to European standards South Africa is quite unique in that it is a country that does still appreciate its own aesthetic. South African women love their big butts, you know, it’s not really...it’s not really a big issue. Black women here call them ATM’s, you know, my African trademark. You know, so there’s basically...there’s a lot of celebration of our bodies as they are.
JB: The Taliban court within the village sentenced her to have her nose cut off and her ears cut off. And luckily she was found alive. I didn’t want to photograph her in the way we would see her, distressed. I asked her to pull her hair away from her ears so we could see her ears as well. And I could see that things weren’t working and I put my camera down and I actually just had a girl-to-girl chat. I could never imagine how she feels, never ever, but there is a moment of healing and just by saying she’s beautiful something happened within her. And I said look at the camera, and I said feel something, you know, feel your beauty and that’s the photograph I got.
I think what I’m doing now is that I’m possibly putting my opinion a lot more into my work than before, than say being the fly on the wall and I think that I’m collaborating. So I’m not just saying, 'I’m not here carry on with your life'; I think it’s me and it’s you and we’re working together.