Published: 3 May, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
Television and magazines have much to answer for with their airbrushed examples of impossible beauty, make-up artists and stylists making even the average look somehow alluring.
Women – and increasingly men – are feeding a multi-million pound diet and beauty industry, provoked in part by the resulting insecurities about their looks and body image.
For some women with conditions such as alopecia or breast cancer, however, society’s judgments on beauty can have devastating consequences on self-esteem and confidence.
Photographers Daniel Regan and Agata Cardoso are addressing the taboos surrounding these issues in an exhibition in Clerkenwell which opens next week.
Both worked independently before meeting by chance and deciding to mount the exhibition. And both struggled initially to win the trust of their subjects.
Daniel explains that he became interested in alopecia – a condition which causes hair loss – when he met a woman called Nataleigh.
“When I first met her I didn’t know she had alopecia,” he says. “She wore a wig. I generally look at people to see if they’d make a good photo. She had the most striking eyes so I asked if I could photograph her, and added that I thought she had amazing hair. When she said it wasn’t hers I was confused at first.
“But we hit it off. I wasn’t intending to do a project on alopecia.”
At first Daniel, who lives in Finsbury Park, had trouble finding other women with alopecia who would allow themselves to be photographed.
Adverts went unanswered and appeals on charity websites were well read but still women were reluctant to come forward.
Eventually one of the trustees of the charity Alopecia UK contacted him and offered to help.
“Within two weeks 10 or 11 people came forward,” he said. “You sometimes need a vetting process in order for people to trust you. Society puts a huge amount of emphasis on what women’s hair looks like, so it is very traumatic for women to lose their hair. The only way to desensitise people is by exposure.
“As a society we’re not used to seeing women without hair or eyelashes. Although it is not damaging to physical health, alopecia can have destructive effects on a person’s confidence and self-esteem and there is currently no known cure.”
On May 19 there will be a talk at the exhibition by the photographers and charities will offer advice on what to do and where to go for people with the condition.
David added: “The most distressing story I heard was an English woman who had lived in Australia for 20 years. Some women tattoo eyebrows on but this woman wore hair eyebrows and a wig. She said the wig was insufferably hot in Australia, but she even wore it when she was at home in case any of her neighbours saw her. Even her closest friends didn’t realise she had alopecia.”
Agata Cardoso, who lives in Camden Town, says that she had similar difficulties to Daniel in finding subjects for her project on breast cancer. And, like her colleague, the project came about by accident.
“I started in 2006 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says. “I started documenting her experience and my role in looking after her. That developed into an interest with my family’s history with the disease and I went to Portugal to photograph my aunts.”
On her return Agata realised the project had developed and she tried to contact other women who had undergone surgical mastectomies.
“I had very little help from charities at first,” she says. “They were very worried about it being sensationalised because of the way it’s often represented in the media. The women felt very ugly. I wanted to bring out the beauty of women after surgery.”
Eventually she managed to document 20 women, one of whom has since died.
“I believe its very much a taboo subject,” she adds. “We’re just not used to seeing the reality of a woman who’s had a mastectomy. It’s buried under the carpet and I believe that’s wrong.
“These women are being marginalised and it’s not fair. We live in a culture that worships youth and an idealised beauty – we are not used to being confronted with physical disfigurement which is a reality for women who have had breast cancer.
“They have no one to look up to because the media doesn’t represent reality.”
• Uncovered: an exhibition exploring body image by Daniel Regan and Agata Cardoso is at the Frameless Gallery, 20 Clerkenwell Green, EC1, from May 14-20, 07974 976736, www. framelessgallery.com