Fashion photographer exposes, redefines concepts of beauty

Rick Guidotti: “I was always told who was beautiful … but I didn't see beauty on just the covers of magazines."

Rick Guidotti: “I was always told who was beautiful … but I didn’t see beauty on just the covers of magazines.”

Rick Guidotti, a renowned fashion photographer and advocate for people living with difference, was the guest speaker at the Plenary session during this year’s Summer Academy Meeting. Guidotti focused on his innovative organization, Positive Exposure, which advocates for individuals with genetic, cognitive, and/or physical difference, and uses the visual arts to influence perceptions, and impact the fields of genetics, human rights, and mental health.

Guidotti recalled his early, preconceived notions of beauty. Much of his career was spent photographing supermodels such as Cindy Crawford for Elle, GQ, and Marie Claire magazines. “I was always told who was beautiful … but I didn’t see beauty on just the covers of magazines,” he said. Then, in the late 1990s, he was outside his studio when he saw a “stunning young girl with white blond hair and porcelain skin.” He was struck by her unique look, unlike anything he’d seen before — particularly in the fashion world. After doing some research, he came to learn she had albinism, but was surprised to discover that available images associated with this condition did little more than exploit or demean the individual.

“In (medical textbooks) I found so many images of kids up against walls in doctors’ offices with those black bars over their eyes. Terrifying images,” Guidotti said. “Then I grabbed an encyclopedia, and thought ‘here is where I’ll find something better,’ but instead I found a picture of a ‘freak’ albino family in the circus. And the more research I did, the more negativity I recovered.”

That was when he decided to abandon the fashion world and establish an advocacy group to change the way people interpret beauty, and create a voice for those who the world sees as “different.” Guidotti used his skills to photograph these individuals in a way that empowers their individuality, and shows that they are first and foremost people — not just symbols of a disease or disorder.

Guidotti first reached out to NOAH (National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) to demonstrate the beauty of albinism through his photographs, but the directors declined for fear of exploitation or sensationalism. After some persistence, however, he made his intentions clear, and they formed a nontraditional partnership to finally shine a positive light on the perception of albinism.

His first photo shoot in his new endeavor was with a girl named Christine. Even though she walked in with her head down and a severe lack of confidence, by the end of the shoot, she “exploded with a smile that lit up New York City,” Guidotti said.

From there, he started connecting with organizations around the world that work with individuals with all kinds of differences, including Marfan syndrome, skeletal dysplasia, Down syndrome, and epidermolysis bullosa. Guidotti showed photos of children he has worked with who had never been the focus of anything positive or “beautiful” in the eyes of the media.

“I go to a lot of these conferences with pictures of these great kids, but then I bring them back to medical students and health care providers to show them not as a diagnosis, but as human beings. One of the main reasons I started going to medical conferences was to show that I understood medical terms and diseases not by a medical textbook, but because I got to know the individuals as people. I now travel with med students to these organizations so they can meet these kids — not in a clinical environment, not in crisis — but as kids being kids, and as a result, they become better health care providers.”

Positive ExposureIn addition to the other programs it has developed, such as educational workshops, image databases for media/print, exhibitions, and campaigns, Positive Exposure also launched a Web-based educational library called FRAME (Faces Redefining the Art of Medical Education) to change how medical information is presented to health care professionals and communities.

Guidotti concluded by showing a video of students from a school for the blind in Africa who — with his encouragement — entered a national chorus contest they previously were not allowed to enter because of their disorders. The group won the competition, and members credited Guidotti and Positive Exposure for inspiring them to enter the contest and learn a lifelong lesson that being different should never prevent them from achieving their goals and dreams.

For more information on Rick Guidotti and Positive Exposure, visit Guidotti’s TED Talk is available online.

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