As part of her residency with the Objectifs Residency & Lab programme, multimedia artist Rebecca Radmore is presenting her project about skin tone and beauty, SKINS, as an exhibition at the Objectifs Gallery.

The exhibition is on from now till Oct 18, with multimedia videos of interviews with people she met and spoke to about this topic in the course of this project, and a pop-up studio, where participants can be photographed and get their skin tones digitally altered to challenge their own perceptions on skin colour. We speak to her to find out more about this project, and her inspiration and process behind it.

Objectifs: Tell us about your project.

Rebecca: Skins is a multimedia project that looks at how different societies and individuals around the world inscribe symbolic, philosophical, socio-cultural and political meanings onto the surface of our bodies. With a particular interest in skin tone modifications at opposite ends of the spectrum – lightening and tanning – it explores how our aesthetic choices in the quest for an ideal beauty are influenced by traditional and contemporary values placed on lightness and darkness and questions how we treat people based on their perceived attractiveness. As a multimedia research project started in multi-cultural Britain, interested in engaging in both academic dialogues, communal and personal experiences, the SKINS project is now a work in progress in Singapore.

Objectifs: How did the idea to investigate people’s perceptions on skin tone come about?

Rebecca: I came to work on this project for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to explore my own questions around skin tone, diversity and multi-cultural Britain. Growing up in and around families of mixed ethnicities, being taught in multi-cultural schools and having the opportunity to work in highly diverse places of work, I was regularly involved in discussions around race and colour. Whilst I always thought that my privileged exposure to diversity meant that I would never judge someone based on their appearance, just once in a while, women of different ethnicities would ask me to question and challenge my own subconscious prejudices. At other times, I remember the anger I felt when my Caucasian skin sometimes afforded me the insight into covert forms of racism and colourism that were shared with me in peer groups or by complete strangers, due to my assumed allegiance with a light skinned tribe. When I considered the practice of skin lightening against a backdrop of the multi-coloured beauty that I saw around me in London, my gut reaction was “I just don’t understand why someone would do that”. Thinking about my own occasional indulgence in the pleasures of a fake tan, I then thought “How hypocritical of me”. Upon further reflection I thought “How ignorant” and began to revisit my years of education in history, media, politics, race and identity and really began to question the complexity of the idea of skin tone modifications in my multi-coloured world. Following recent transformations to my own body following a major road traffic accident, I have also been asked to question the meaning of beauty and the effect it has on our daily lives and interactions. For all the reasons outlined by the people interviewed in my project, I think that skin tone and how we treat people based on appearance is something that should be addressed and kept in conversation on a community, local, national and international level. Using as many multimedia and networking components as possible, this is my attempt at contributing to and promoting that dialogue.

Objectifs: Was it difficult to find people to speak about this subject in the beginning?

Rebecca: Yes and no. In the UK people were most definitely willing to talk about the subject of society, politics and race from a more detached or objective point of view. However, when it came to speaking to and documenting people’s opinions based on personal experiences of using skin lightening or tanning treatments, it was a much tougher process. I think this is a) because asking someone to question an action which may reflect on their own sense of identity, self-perception and values placed on beauty is not an easy task and b) because both lightening and tanning (to a lesser extent) have been made controversial subjects by the UK media given its connections to race, identity and health warnings. Interestingly, in Singapore, I found it to be the other way round. People were happy to talk about their experiences of skin tone modifications on a personal level, but when asked to scratch the surface a little more, people often admitted that they had never given it any thought or were unwilling to talk about the issue with reflection upon society at large.

Objectifs: Tell us about this pop-up studio.

Rebecca: The pop-up studio was actually developed partly in response to the fact that I was initially finding it hard to find contributors to the project. I also felt that it was difficult to represent interesting psychological processes, like how someone might be affected by images of idealised beauty in the media through photojournalistic study alone. I began to think about ways outside of photojournalism and documentary photography that I could invite people to interact with the subject matter. Coming from a background in community engagement and participatory methods of working, I had always been interested in participatory / interactive photography as a way to initiate discourse outside the realms of the gallery space or the internet, which continue to be limited in access for many people. The interactive nature of the pop-up studio also means that people feel that they are taking part in something and gaining something from the experience- a chance to take part in the digital modification of their own skin tone and in sharing their ideas along side others in the market. It was incredible to see how much people were willing to share and contribute. Following discussions with a women’s focus group I set up to talk through some ideas, we came up with this particular way of working:

–        Set up studio in multicultural area of London
–        Explain project to people passing by and ask them to sit for a portrait and work with me to digitally enhance their skin tone
–        Conduct short camera interview to document personal feelings about skin tone
–        Manipulate the portraits together
–        Conduct another short interview upon having seen the manipulations
–        Continue the conversation with interviewee and other onlookers over tea and biscuits
–        Series of portraits sent to email. Where email unavailable, portraits were printed and distributed
–        Using portraits, conduct a pop survey online and on the street to ask people in which portrait the sitter looks most attractive and to ask further leading questions based on skin tone and beauty.

 I am trying to negotiate an appropriate space to repeat this process in Singapore.
Objectifs: Were you surprised by the reactions of the people who participated?

Rebecca: I think I tried not to have a preconceived notion of what people would say. With regards to the sitters, some people wanted to be lighter, some darker and some to stay the same. Their responses as to why often related back to the culture in which they had been brought up in and the positive or negative influences with regards to beauty and skin tone that they had had in their life. I found the results of the survey more interesting, in which the majority held true to the idea that “natural beauty is best”. However, every now and again you would get an interesting comment telling you how difficult it was to recognise and be honest about their feelings towards skin colour, or that they were purposefully trying to match what they felt was the most attractive skin colour to the skin colour that they though best represented that person’s perceived ethnicity, that they felt angry at having to judge people based on appearances alone, or that too many people are adhering to a superficial way of seeing and behaving and we should start to get back to basics. Others talked of the education of children, digital manipulation in the media, human genetics and psychology, inherent racism, collective humanity and beauty as vice. Overall I was just happy that people generally commented on a process of self-reflection with regards to how we treat people based on appearances and skin tone.

Objectifs: Why did you decide to bring this project to Singapore?

Rebecca: Like London, Singapore is a highly multi-culutral society and people of many different skin tones live side by side. I am interested in these societies because different values placed on lightness and darkness are transported along with the many diaspora communities living together. I question whether these values are then intensified, integrated, diluted or move on to produce completely new ways of interpreting beauty.

Objectifs: How different were people’s responses to the subject on skin colour between the UK and Singapore?

Rebecca: The major difference is that the UK has a much stronger tanning culture. One survey showed that 50% of British women felt that having a tan made them felt more confident. Whilst there is a small community of tanners in Singapore, including the expat community and some local Singaporeans, the majority preference is for lighter skin. 

Another difference I have noticed is that when speaking to people in Singapore, they often tell me that they have never really thought about ideas of skin colour, beauty and race, whereas in the UK, any mention of skin colour automatically triggers a stream of responses to the subject. As mentioned before, people are less willing to talk about the subject on a societal level in Singapore so it is somewhat difficult to gauge. I do feel that in both societies there is an official line of multiracial harmony, and whilst we have all come a long way in recent years, when you really get the chance to question people on an individual basis it is evident that people are still judged quite heavily on appearance, and skin colour is a major factor in these judgements.

Objectifs: What do you hope for visitors to the exhibition to bring back with them after they see your work?

Rebecca: Food for thought. A desire to engage in dialogue around the subject. A space for self-reflection and the society in which we live.

Objectifs: Any plans for this project after this?

Rebecca: In the short time I have left in Singapore, I will try to gather some further material. I will then be moving to Southern Africa for several months, and will continue this personal project alongside my other photographic work. When I get back to the UK in January I will start to consolidate all the work and develop the multimedia platform and content for the SKINS project further. I have been invited to exhibit the work in Panama next year and would like to hold another exhibition in London and continue to give talks on the project in different communities and forums.

I would like to thank Objectifs for inviting me to Singapore. It has been a wonderful experience, with an invaluable addition to the content of the SKINS project, and I hope the exhibition has opened a small space from which dialogue around the subject can take place.

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SKINS will run from Oct 9 – Oct 18, at the Objectifs Gallery.

Pop-up Studio / Guided Tour
Session A: Oct 12, Sat, 2pm – 330pm
Session B: Oct 17, Thu, 730pm – 9pm 

Meet the artist and join us for a guided tour of the exhibition as Rebecca Radmore speaks about her project about beauty and skin tone. Participants of the tour will have a chance to be photographed at the pop-up studio as part of the exhibition, and have their skin tones digitally altered to challenge their own perceptions on skin tone. Pre-register at info@objectifs.com.sg. Guided tours for small groups are available by appointment. Email info@objectifs.com.sg for more details.

About the artist

A photographer and multimedia producer specialising in documentary, photojournalism and participatory media, Rebecca has a MA in Photojournalism from the London College of Communication. Her multimedia project, “Telenovela: Colombia’s Daily Fix” was screened at the London Latin Film Festival, and she is currently working on “SKINS”, an interactive multimedia project exploring our relationship with skin colour and skin tone modifications. The first chapter for this project was exhibited at the “It Is What It Was” group exhibition in the UK in December 2012. For more information on this project, visit www.storyplanet.com/9091.