Manon Ouimet’s ongoing photographic series ‘Altered’ is one of the most powerful projects I have encountered in the UK in many years. Unconcerned by the rhetoric of art language and the trends of the contemporary art market, this work is a true example of art as activism, motivated by genuine care and respect for others. ‘Altered’ depicts people whose bodies have been altered through very different circumstances. Each subject is photographed in a studio with dramatic lighting that references the canon of Renaissance painting and stylistically nods to 20th Century photographic pioneers such as Edward Weston and Man Ray. Ouimet’s subjects have all been found through Instagram and many have recommended others. From the start of this project, word of its power has rapidly spread, with people frequently contacting the artist requesting to be photographed.
Ouimet describes the process of working with her sitters as a “sensitive collaboration” to unravel the body, afford it space and freedom to express itself. Her subjects are always nude, often starring straight into the camera and displaced from any recognisable setting. Without clothes they bare no insignia of socio-economic status and aside from the occasional tattoo with contemporary cultural references, there are no indications of time. Each subject is regarded sculpturally, the artist’s eye drawing attention to contours, creases, gestures in limbs, subtle facial expressions, seeing the body with an arresting clarity that brings an overwhelming concentration of beauty and poetry to each image.
Ouimet is dedicated to redefining our idea of beauty. Reclaiming beauty from the economic structure it has become synonymous with, she seeks to remind us that beauty is a state of being, the intention we afford to others, our willingness to look and to be seen for what we are, in our essence. Coming from a background of fashion photography and a former child model, Ouimet’s personal experience of the beauty industry is deeply conflicted, she has been both the victim of its lens and the perpetrator (working as a re-toucher for fashion brands and photographers). In reaction to her experiences working in fashion she seeks to use the ‘Therapeutic Gaze’ (a phrase coined by photographer Jo Spence who documented the decline of her body through terminal cancer until her death) to employ the camera as a tool for positive rediscovery and reclamation of one’s own story.
She does not, however, ask her sitters to share their stories of how their bodies came to be ‘altered’, for her this puts too much emphasis on the importance of the past and who they might have been before. Instead she wants to embrace who her sitters are at the very moment they sit before her, with the body they inhabit, seeing it as exciting, powerful and unique. Her portraits value the body for what it is, not what it is not. Definition by presence and not lack or loss.
Ouimet uses re-touching methods employed in fashion photography not to hide imperfections, but rather to highlight and enhance what makes her sitters unique and therefore more perfect. In ‘The Beauty Myth’, Naomi Wolf writes ‘to airbrush age off a woman’s face is to erase women’s identity, power and history’. This is true of all subjects whose images are altered for ‘the consumer’, presenting a false mirror of humanity. The erasure of so-called imperfections in fashion is terrifyingly extreme, especially when we consider what a tiny percentage of people are deemed worthy of being models and that the majority of people have been erased from the public eye. Without seeing real role models, without being exposed to true diversity of experience, how can we collectively navigate the complexity of being human?
Perhaps this is why social media is so intoxicating, it allows us to find our own role models and follow those we see as mirrors to ourselves, but that too is seized upon as a way to make us consume more and to create new languages of division. In a new paradigm where the algorithm is god, can we ever separate beauty from consumption (even if our definition of beauty shifts entirely)?
‘Altered’ is a deeply sincere project existing in an age of cynicism. Amidst the despair of impending global catastrophe and the rise of extremism and divisionism, this project is a reminder of the value of diverse experiences and outlooks, and a meditation on the possibility of empowered representation. If we all had the courage as Ouimet’s sitters do to face the camera bearing our scars, perhaps our shared vulnerability and honesty could remind us of the essential truths that unite all human experience.