Here is the full transcript of journalist and photographer Esther Honig’s TEDx Talk: What Does It Mean To Be Beautiful? at TEDxVancouver conference. This event took place on November 14, 2015 at Vancouver, British Columbia.
Esther Honig – Journalist and photographer
I had a really boring desk job. I had bills to pay, so I stepped away from my career in journalism to take a position in online marketing,
It was six months of dull meaningless labor, but that’s where I was first introduced to this amazing website called Fiverr. And Fiverr is an international freelance website where you can contract people from all over the world to do things like animation, graphic design, video editing
And one day, while I was supposed to be working at this boring desk job, I was actually looking through the Fiverr website, and that’s when I came across this page full of photo editors. And these are people from all over the world, places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Greece. And they were saying things like “I can make your image perfect.” And that’s when I first had an idea.
My oldest sister always says that really good ideas are simple. And in that moment, I decided that what I wanted to do was take a picture of myself, where I was wearing no makeup and had no fancy lighting, and I was going to send it to these photo editors and ask that they make me beautiful. Because I had no idea how this sort of experiment would turn out, but I hypothesized that my request would be interpreted very differently, depending on the individual and the culture that they’d grown up in.
So, I sent my image to over 50 photo editors in as many countries as I could find. And as the edited images began arriving in my inbox, this really weird idea I had started to get really interesting. People had changed the color of my skin to be lighter or darker. They’d shave down my eyebrows to be pencil thin or thick and bushy. I was dressed in a hijab, and in some instances, my face was completely reconstructed.
Well, it took about a month, and I spent a couple hundred dollars, but in the end, I still didn’t have any concrete idea what this project meant. I couldn’t spot any consistencies or patterns, regardless of where the photo editor was from. And so for a moment I considered this sort of DIY social experiment to be a total flop. But I thought, you know, the concept is interesting, and I felt that it provoked a really important dialogue.
And so, you know, and I figured, someone somewhere out there is going to want to see this. So I titled it “Before and After” and I sent it to BuzzFeed, on the chance that “Hey, maybe they’d consider publishing it.” And, to my surprise, they did, and I thought, “Great, published by BuzzFeed; check that off the list.”
And then, something completely unexplainable and unpredictable was set into motion. And not 30 minutes after that article went live did I see a message in my inbox from an editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, asking to publish Before and After. Every morning I wake up, and my inbox is submerged under the tsunami of fan mail and media requests from all over the world. I’m interviewed on CNN, Al Jazeera, Good Morning America, The Today Show.
And they’re all asking the same question: “What does this mean? What does this project mean?” And my response is I don’t really know. You know, I wish so badly that I had this PhD in anthropology or something so that I could give some definitive answer about what it was that I’d created.
But in reality, I’m a journalist, and my job is really all about asking questions. Personally, I think that the results of Before and After are thought-provoking. But they’re not necessarily significant. You know, this project doesn’t define beauty or what it looks like around the world. In fact, the most significant thing that this project did was start a global conversation around something that we think about and experience every day but still don’t understand. And that’s beauty.
The moment that Before and After officially went viral, I started getting these Photoshopped images of myself from strangers all around the world. And they’re saying things like, “Oh, I noticed you didn’t have a photo from my country” or “I wanted to give it a shot”. You know, all these people want to be a part of my collection, and at first, that’s so flattering. But after like the 500th image, it all starts to feel a bit invasive.
You know, like my face has become this global paint-by-numbers project. And it’s even used without my permission in things like online ads to sell makeup and wrinkle cream, and my favorite: Peruvian IIama parkas. It’s not uncommon that creators lose control of their work when it goes viral, but remember this wasn’t just my work. It was also my face, and I’d become a part of the public domain.
About a week later, the bloggers and the content aggregators, they don’t even bother asking my permission before they put publish Before and After. My project is just smeared across the internet and it’s been reduced to clickbait. And what’s worse is that the way it’s being interpreted has just become more and more shallow.
You know, my thoughts, my words are omitted, and I just see my photos online next to comments like, “Rather a question of skill than of heritage; most of these Photoshoppers did a rather weak job,” and, “This set of photos just proves that even Photoshop can’t make a beauty out of a very plain face.”
The funny thing about the internet and social media is that it can be so connecting, and, at certain moments, so incredibly isolating. You know, I had no way of reaching out to these millions of people to explain to them how they completely missed my point. All I could do was sit back and wait for this storm to blow over. And it took about a month for my viral stardom to subside to a ripple.
And I really couldn’t help but feel like I’d been swindled by the internet. I decided that the only way to take back the narrative around what I’d created and prove that there was still more depth to this project was by doing it again.
So I call my friend Priscilla Yuki Wilson, and she’s a journalist based out of LA, and I say, “Priscilla, I want you to do this project, but this is yours now, and it’s not mine.”
So, Priscilla takes that idea, and she sends her image off much in the way that I did. Only as a biracial woman, her project sparks this really interesting dialogue around Western beauty standards and ethnicity.
Another month goes by, and this time a plus-sized fashion writer has decided to redo the project. Only she’s using it to talk about beauty and body image. When I think it’s all over, a few months later, I start getting these messages from young women all around the world who are doing their school research projects or even their college thesis on what is beauty, and they want to study my project.
They send me their Powerpoint presentations and their videos, and I see photos of my face cut out and glued to poster boards, and it’s so cool, it’s amazing to imagine the conversations that these young women have brought to their classrooms. It was about a year ago that I launched Before and After, and I still get requests from friends, and fans, and family, insisting that I create more editions of this experiment.
But really, I don’t consider this to be my responsibility because this doesn’t belong to me anymore. Before and After belongs to whoever feels that they have a perspective worth exploring, one that continues to build on that original conversation. Recently, one young woman sent her full body image to photo editors around the world. This man recreated the project, and someone even sent photos of this cat. And again, I don’t consider this to be plagiarism, because Before and After really belongs to whoever feels that they have a perspective worth exploring.
When I look back to where this all began, and I wished so badly that I had all the right answers, I realized that this project was a success, in part, because it kept asking questions. As a journalist, it’s my job to help you see things from a new perspective, to look at your deeply held beliefs and think, look and see if maybe there’s a room for a new angle, a new way of seeing things. That’s how I approached this project, I kept it simple, and I focused on a subject that’s experienced by absolutely everyone, everywhere but to find in a million different ways.
This really was not a scientific study; it was more of a cultural survey, and it was one that prompted a really compelling conversation, and it’s these conversations that really resonate with us. Ones where there’s not always a right or wrong answer or even an answer at all.
Because in the end, the most important thing I asked was not “What is beauty?” but “What do you think?” Thank you.
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