Zed Nelson: Love Me

In his series Love Me, Zed Nelson has created a body of work that is beautifully eerie and a shocking reminder of our obsessions with ourselves. The work has previously been presented in a book but is now being exhibited at the FreeLens Gallery in Hamburg with Nelson also presenting a workshop on how to tell stories with images and develop ideas. Michael Tsenti caught up with Zed Nelson to talk about Love Me.

Michael Tsenti : What does beauty mean to you?

Zed Nelson: I struggle with the notion of beauty and how we perceive it. I think we must question how our perceptions of beauty are formed and influenced.

I wonder, are we simply brainwashed by the beauty and advertising industries into perceiving certain constructed ideals as ‘beautiful’? Is beauty something that we learn? Or is it a more natural, in-built instinct within us that makes us appreciate something as beautiful or attractive? If we think someone is not good looking because they ‘have a big nose’, surely it is because we have been trained and brainwashed to think that large noses are unattractive? If we are attracted to a conventionally ‘good looking’ person – a ‘model’ for instance - is it because we have been repeatedly exposed to media messages telling us that this persons features are desirable? Or, is it a Darwinian, biologically hard-wired response, driving us to want to reproduce with the healthiest specimen in our species – one with symmetrical features and glossy hair and good genes?

Evolutionary psychologists claim there is an underlying standard script for beauty – a foundation for what we find appealing that transcends culture and ethnicity. They say there are various absolutes. For instance, to judge someone beautiful, the eye requires symmetry. They point to a principle called the Divine Proportion, or Golden Section, which is outlined by Euclid in 300BC and which describes a set of measurements that we unconsciously find pleasing. If you look at the human face, body, a classic painting or, for instance, a butterfly’s wing of fir cone, and measure distances between various points, they will repeatedly conform to a fixed ratio. In people considered beautiful, they conform more precisely: if a gauge that measures the Golden Section is placed against a model’s face, the distances between features usually correlate exactly.

But there are also some extremely toxic legacies at work in our society, that are certainly not ‘natural’. For instance, blonde hair and blue eyes are celebrated in our culture. The idea that blonde is best began as early as the eighteenth century when ethnologists, sociologists and English anthropologists such as Englishman Charles White began drawing up hierarchical gradations for mankind, starting with what were believed to be the lowliest - the negroes, bushmen and aborigines - to the yellow races and Slavs, until they reached the white race, thought to be the supreme species. Blonde colouring, supposedly derived from the sun, was believed to be a sign of greatness, together with blue eyes, which reflected the sky.

Of course all of this was invented racist nonsense, but the legacy of this kind of thinking continues to affect perceptions today.


MT: The series covers a broad subject, how did you begin to consolidate all of the disparate strands in the series?  

ZN: This was difficult. It was an ambitious project. I wanted the project to be global in scope. I ended up traveling to 17 different countries in total.  

The resulting work was at first difficult to edit, to consolidate. I had to throw away a lot, to let time pass and return to the edit.

Strangely, in the end, I found a secret weapon - an easy way of working out which images would make the final edit. I included a Raymond Carver poem at the end of the book. It is a short, simple beautiful poem, and fitted perfectly the tone of the project. I would place each image next to the poem, and if it sat comfortably with it - if the image and the poem had some kind of resonance - then the image was right for the book. It worked every time.

MT: The images, in a few instances, are fairly graphic. How did you feel when making them?

ZN: I wanted some of the images to be graphic, to show the reality of plastic surgery, the lengths we are willing to go to ‘improve’ our bodies.

But I quickly became used to witnessing these procedures, and found it fascinating to observe. I wonder why people find these any of these images hard to look at. I think it actually shows how far removed we are from our real bodies, that we are so uncomfortable with the truth.

In the book, there is an image of an old mans severed head in a bowl, in a science lab. It is like a modern version of the classical painting that depicts the aftermath of the beheading of John the Baptist, although in this image it is the head of a man who donated his body to science, now being used by trainee plastic surgeons learning to perform facelifts.

MT: The photographs I find fascinating are of the women in the maximum security prison. What was it like photographing these women?

ZN: It took a lot of trouble to gain access to the prison, but once there it was an extraordinary event to observe. The prisoners - many of whom were serving long sentences for drug-smuggling - emerged from their cells in ball gowns and tiara’s, and there was a prison beauty salon with an enormous, tattooed female make-up artist. Everyone was in a good mood and it was a fun day for the prison. The winner of the contest won make-up and a TV. But of course there’s a serious side too. Brazil is one of the most beauty-obsessed cultures in South America, and beauty contests continue even inside prisons.

MT: You travelled to numerous places around the world for the project. How did each country’s views differ on the subject of your work? 

ZD: Ultimately I am interested by, and was looking at similarities, not differences. I travel 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 modern Western beauty ideal has been sold to us, and is now being packaged and exported globally like a crude universal brand.

The modern Caucasian beauty ideal has been packaged and exported globally, and just as surgical operations to ‘Westernise’ oriental eyes have become increasingly popular, so the beauty standard has become increasingly prescriptive. In Africa the use of skin-lightening and hair-straightening products is widespread. In South America women have operations that bring them eerily close to the Barbie doll ideal, and blonde-haired models grace the covers of most magazines. Anorexia is on the increase in Japan, and in China, beauty pageants, once banned as ‘spiritual pollution’, are now held across the country.

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. 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, chiseled, American-style noses. 

MT: Some of the portraits, when taken in the context of the book, could be seen to be somewhat mocking. Do you know how the book went down with the people who’s faces and flesh fill it?

ZN: 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. 

But as the subjects frailties and pretensions are exposed, so too are we the viewer: our motives for looking, for inspecting, along with uncomfortable reminders of our own vanities and insecurities.I certainly do not feel mocking in my approach, in fact I very strongly challenge anyone to look at this series and deny that they are a part of this culture. I really feel that this work reflects ‘us’ not ‘them’. 

I have become increasingly interested in interrogating my own culture. Having spent over a decade travelling the world photographing and reporting on often traumatic facets of foreign culture with a determined yet somewhat detached fascination, I began to realise that I didn’t need to go so far from home to experience and try to make sense of what it is that makes us human. My gaze has become more inward looking, more personal, more aware that I am not simply an observer. My work has become, in essence, more about ‘us’, and less about ‘them’: more aware that we are all confused mammals, stumbling around trying to make sense of our lives.

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 have 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. Can any of us honestly say, ‘I don’t want to be attractive’? Don’t we all want to be loved? But have we been brainwashed into believing that in order to be loved we need smaller noses, bigger breasts, tighter skin, longer legs, flatter stomachs and to appear ever youthful. Where does it end? The people in the book are all of us. Some are seen doing extreme things to themselves (vaginal surgery, leg-lengthening surgery, face-lifts), but some are also doing more ‘normal’, everyday things, like bikini-waxing, lightening their hair and bodybuilding. These people are just trying to be loved, like all of us.

Individually, I think each of the photographs in Love Me are reasonably straightforward and non-judgemental. Yet collected together, these same photographs take a very particular critical stance that is founded on wonder and amazement, but ultimately results in an overwhelming sense of sadness and despair for the state of our culture and our sense of self. Collected together, the images combine into something quite emotionally challenging. 

MT: Did your viewpoint on plastic surgery and modern concepts of beauty change during the course of making the series? 

ZN: Historically the beauty industry has 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 previously unexploited market. Men are now being sold role models that ultimately make them more vain, more self-conscious, and more dissatisfied with themselves. I can see and feel this creeping influence all around me.

I think the beauty industry has identified natural tendencies that are within us as humans, and they have exploited them. Of course there has been an apparent desire to be ‘attractive’ for centuries; it can be seen in the animal kingdom in plumage and mating behaviour. But the beauty industry has identified and exploited our fears and desires, and created a globalized, multi billion-dollar industry that is designed to make us more insecure, competitive and unhappy with ourselves… so they can sell us a ‘cure’. 

Westernising the human body has become a new form of globalisation, with ‘Beauty’ becoming a homogenous brand. The more rigorously our vision is trained to appreciate the artificial, the more industries benefit. 

But who creates this culture? However much we may confidently point the finger at certain industries, we can’t deny our own tacit, albeit culturally conditioned, involvement. Like it or not, we are judged, and judge, by appearance. Perhaps we are obsessed with the way our own bodies look because we know how instinctively judgemental we are of the bodies that we look at.

As our role models become ever younger and more idealised, we are so afraid of aging that the quest for youthful preservation generates an almost pathological obsession with our bodies. As we align our sense of self-worth with self-image, the psychological and emotional consequences are tortuous.  The one thing we do know for certain is that our body will always, in the end, betray us.

MT: The book came out four years ago. Has the way in which you treat the images altered at all both in terms of time and in the way you are putting this exhibition together? 

ZN: I imagine the project 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 way I edit the images and put the exhibition together has not changed in this short time. The work has increased in relevance and urgency for me. 

MT: Accompanying the exhibition is a workshop for photographers. What do you hope people will gain from it? 

ZN: A good workshop should be about learning, gaining inspiration and building confidence. It should provide insights into working methods, and kick-start photographers into starting or developing their own stories and longer-term projects. A workshop should help people analyse and understand what motivates them as photographers, and steer them towards their goals.

All images © Zed Nelson/Institute


For more information on the exhibition at  FREELENS Galerie which runs until 15 May  click here, or for information on the workshop click here.

— Michael Tsenti