Photographer uses Photoshop to challenge beauty flaws

Featured image: Stephanie O’Connor, Clare, 2014, Giclée print, Collection of the artist

The enthusiastic ‘embrace your flaws’ encouragement offered by those who claim to support ‘natural’ female beauty is not something young photographer Stephanie O’Connor cares for.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking this is the case.

In a modest white room at the top the staircase in Sir James Wallace’s Pah Homestead gallery, the scrubbed-clean faces of 14 women stare boldly out. Young and old, dark and light, the female visage that O’Connor presents is (by glamorous standards) undoubtedly flawed.

Rowan, Annabel, Clementine, Ngaire and Clare, to name a few, boast imperfections through complexion, laughter lines, a bulging vein beneath an eye, dark shadows under the eyes, a scar. Audrey and Harper – the oldest two – add significant signs of ageing to the mix. Interestingly, with their knowing eyes and skin carved with a few creases of wisdom, their faces are the most compelling of the lot.

What O’Connor is actually saying through these images is that we don’t even have the right to suggest a particular feature is a flaw. She’s turned the traditional use of Photoshop on its head and used it to accentuate the specific features that models said dented their esteem the most.

“I wanted to combat the idea of a ‘flaw’ and why that is such a rubbish notion” says the artist. “It’s so patronising and usually endemic to women in media. ‘Embrace your flaws’, although it has kind intentions, is terribly condescending. Who said they’re flaws?”

It is an incredibly refreshing message in a sea of manufactured perfection – one that most women, no matter how self-confident, happily yield to. One only needs to look at the 12% beauty industry growth from 2006 to 2012 (offered by Statistics New Zealand Business Statistics) to realise that. According to American statistics, Botox use is growing at about 15% worldwide and treatments like photo-rejuvination show more than 30% growth.

Wallace Arts Trust, Curator & Collections Administrator, Nicholas Butler, was drawn to display the work as part of the recently finished Festival of Photography.

“I was attracted to Stephanie’s photos as they raised a number of issues, such as: media and beauty, how we see and unjustly compare ourselves, the constant flood of images from Pop Culture, what is real/fake, the perception of beauty across different genders and cultures.”

O’Connor coupled photographing the women with a stark, close-up approach with dim light to accentuate features; in the same way her subjects defiantly look out at the viewer, O’Connor articulates her purpose.

“I wanted more to reveal that I work within this industry and to reclaim the power of retouching. I didn’t want to distil it down into a ‘Photoshop is bad’ type scenario as that’s too demonstrable and already understood. I liked the idea of a second self, and exploring the idea of self-perception. Beauty is a vortex of discussion, and sure, I was referencing it. But I just wanted to stab the idea in the front if that makes sense!”

The show is provocatively named Release the Hounds, a play on what O’Connor has described as ‘animal and creaturely….a pack [of faces] encircling the viewer in a pool of blue light, revealing sudoral, porous skin.’

Release the Hounds continues until July 19 at TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, 72 Hillsborough Road. For more information visit