The fantastical, edited world of fashion photography builds unrealistic expectations for everyday women but one of the leading figures has walked away from the industry after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with taking certain images to pursue a radical alternative approach to his profession. London based photographer Jez Smith feels conflicted that such photographs could make him complicit in undermining the self-confidence of women after 25-years of photographing models.
“Photoshoots are fantasies and should be treated as such,” Smith says. “They have nothing to do with what’s real or actually what I find really beautiful. It’s just an idea, a creative concept, and it’s no different to someone writing a fictional novel. It’s just another art form.” Once a face of Next Top Model in Australia and the US, Smith is one of the few serious players to speak out against it.
“There’s never a shoot where there’s not a moment that my subject will look at the screen and be unhappy with what they’re seeing in themselves and it’s incredible to me. They are worshipped for their beauty and yet all they see are the flaws. Women are simply not given the chance to just be OK with themselves, to celebrate their beauty, their intelligence and their achievements the way men are, and that’s why I’ve come to this point where I don’t want to be a part of that process anymore. I want to be showing the true beauty that I see, the laughter lines, the wrinkles, and ‘flaws’ that make each of us unique. Not be perpetuating a homogenized version of what female beauty should be.”
Earlier this year, Jez packed up his Sydney apartment and moved to London to pursue his dream of shooting a different sort of beauty. “I’m a commercial photographer. I don’t have an issue with selling a product, but I do have an issue with selling an anti-ageing product on an 18-year-old. It’s the hypocrisy of the industry.” The realisation his work may be contributing to the body image issues of women of all ages is emotional and deeply personal. Jez is a godfather to a 14-year-old girl, who he is extremely close to, the daughter of a single mum and lifelong friend.
“The number of times you hear a mother say; ‘Oh, you’re so pretty’ and [things like], ‘Be pretty and get yourself a nice husband’. Even really evolved, smart women [think like this] because of societal pressures,” Smith says. “I think people don’t even realise they’re doing it. As a young boy growing up I was never told I had to be handsome to get a good wife. Those rules just don’t apply to men. Men are raised to compete with each other for academic success or sporting prowess or financial success, none of which have anything to do with the way they look. Women, from a very young age, are taught to compete with each other, using their physicality, for men.”
He also appeals to the women who buy magazines to think about what they are doing. “If women stopped buying magazines that had 14-year-old girls on the covers then they wouldn’t sell them, we wouldn’t be taking those pictures, so it’s actually supply and demand,” Smith says. “At the end of the day it’s the people that buy those products that enable this to be perpetuated. When women stop buying the products that use 14-year-old girls to advertise anti-ageing products then the advertising companies will change.”
Asked what sort of world he would like to see for the next generation of women, he says it is not just about equal pay. “I think the battle for equality has a really long way to go. I actually get so angry when I have girlfriends who say to me, ‘It’s not so bad, I’m doing okay.’ Of course they’re incredible women achieving amazing success in all walks of life, but is seems to be despite the odds stacked against them… I’d like to see the stacks a little more evenly distributed. It’s about all of the elements that go towards equality.
“It’s about the sense of well-being that as a man I think you have. I’m not saying that men don’t have pressures and they don’t have insecurities. But men don’t go walking around worrying about the size of their thighs and nor should women. It’s just different for men and it would be really amazing for it to be the same for everyone. For women to be able to celebrate themselves, and just feel OK about themselves in the same way men do.”
Jez spoke to Future Women during a visit to Sydney where he still shoots campaigns for a range of brands. He is also a proud supporter of Future Women and contributed to a series of images ahead of launch. He is most proud of working with brands like Trilogy Skincare who shoot a range of different aged women, and who refuse to retouch the images. And Berlei, who use incredible role model Serena Williams as the face of the brand, and Playtex, who shoot on models who are age appropriate for their demographic, and also don’t retouch the images, and who are fighting to get over 40’s women seen in advertising as something other than the ‘mum’ or the ‘grandma’ but to show how truly beautiful ageing can be.
“For me I don’t want to just shoot physically beauty, but shoot people who are doing incredible work, inspirational people, doing a portrait of someone who’s doing an incredible arts program to help ethnic minorities for example, which I’m doing through Change Creation in the UK. I just recently shot portraits of a couple of ladies who run a performance troupe that only has disabled performers. Just listening to them talk about the people that they work with and the passion for what they’re doing, those are the people I want to be photographing because for me they’re beautiful when they’re absolutely inspiring.”
Jez has also been working on a passion project of nudes where he is shooting precisely the women he wants to celebrate. But instead of art directing the image himself, he’s asking each woman how they would like to be represented, how they would ideally like to celebrate their own unique beauty. The aim is to produce a series of images of women who have had to deal with their physical form being altered, misunderstood, or questioned. Images that absolutely ‘celebrate’ themselves in the ultimate way, as dictated by them.
“I have a girlfriend who had breast cancer, she’s had a mastectomy and she wanted to show her strength in the image because she thinks, ‘Fuck cancer, I’ve beaten you.’ Every time I look at her eyes in the image I’m blown away by what I see in them,” says Jez. “I have another girlfriend who is incredibly fit and she’s been criticised for being ‘too muscular’ even though she’s an athlete. The hypocrisy stuns me. If she was a guy, she’d be high-fived in the locker room because she looks amazing but because she’s a woman she’s meant to not have muscles and not be physically strong. She just wanted to be photographed in a really soft, gentle, natural way to show the the real, incredibly feminine side of her.”
“The moment that makes me feel like I’m (trying) to do something worthwhile is when they look at the pictures on screen and they say they feel beautiful and they’re moved by what I’d managed to capture in them. Both of them said, ‘You’ve made me feel different about myself” and for me, as a photographer, that’s the most amazing thing I can do and what I’d love to spend the rest of my career doing.”
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