Singular Beauty: Photographing Cosmetic Surgery Clinics
As the adage goes, document what you know. Cara Phillips has never gone under the knife of a plastic surgeon, but she has photographed dozens of plastic surgery rooms around the country — all under the glare of florescent surgery lights. A former child model, Phillips chose photography as a way to turn her own lens on an industry she felt objectified women — and to battle her own body image demons. The result is Singular Beauty, a book of haunting portraits of the insides of cosmetic surgery offices and their promise of a better you.
What drew you to document the beauty industry?
Before I became a photographer, I spent most of my life in the beauty business, first as a child model and later as makeup artist. From a very early age, I learned that being beautiful was both valuable and required of women. These experiences left me with some serious body-image issues. So the decision to focus my camera on beauty started off as a personal exploration, but as the project progressed, my focus shifted to the larger cultural issues of aging, desire, and physical perfection. The cosmetic surgery industry is the ultimate expression of the relentless American pursuit of youth and beauty.
Why did you choose to photograph the surgery rooms without the patients in them?
I was not interested in judging people who’d had surgery, or getting caught up in the “they look so much better” or “they look like a circus freak” reaction people tend to have when they look at a person who has had work done. I wanted the photographs to communicate what it feels like to be in these spaces, for people whose body dissatisfaction has driven them to make the ultimate beauty intervention. In order to do that, I started manipulating the rooms, using the available light and removing objects that did not add any context.
Did the clinics resemble each other?
Cosmetic surgery is one field of medicine where the decor of the office is very important — after all, they are positioning themselves as arbiters of beauty. But even though the spaces were often professionally decorated, it was impossible to hide there clinical and medical functionality. I was also struck by the demand for appointments. Normally people fear going to the doctor. But in these offices, the receptionist had to turn down prospective patients, or give them appointments six months down the road. Instead of putting off their next doctor visit, people were desperate to come.
You’ve written about being a Ford model as a child. What was that like?
Well, it certainly shaped the work I do today. I had to listen to my agent tell my mother that there was not enough space between my nose and upper lip when I smiled, and that my nose would have to be fixed soon. I had to endure casting agents pointing out every flaw on my 10-year-old body. It was like a grownup job for a kid: I was expected to never complain or be tired, sick or hungry. I will never forget the time, during an outdoor shoot in the summer in New York, the photographer had me kneel on blacktop. It was so hot on my knees that I was crying, and by he time we were done, my purple pleather pants had melted through.
You started this project as a student. Do you think you’d get the same kind of access had you started this series today?
I’d like to think I would. The goal of my photographs is to raise questions and provoke people to think, not to indict any individual. And to be quite honest, my images often make the offices much more beautiful than they are.
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