Portrait photographer Rankin and artist Alison Lapper have teamed up to help four people who struggle with self-image learn to love the skin they’re in.
The outgoing duo co-piloted new BBC documentary ‘No Body’s Perfect’ which questions beauty norms in society and invites four people who struggle with the way they look to be photographed in Rankin’s studio.
The stars of the show are David White, Damian Harper, Carly Barratt and Alanah Bagel - all of whom overcame issues with themselves and their bodies to sit before Rankin’s camera.
For many it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be photographed by the man who has shot everyone from David Bowie to the Queen, but for the four subjects of the documentary it couldn’t be more frightening.
As Rankin put it: “You see these four people talk about themselves and be very honest and brave about themselves, to the point where you’re really proud of them because they had some serious problems.”
Damian Harper, 47, lost his entire leg to cancer when he was just 16 years old. This, coupled with having to adapt to life as an amputee, has resulted in him suffering from severe depression and anxiety over the years. More recently, he was diagnosed with PTSD.
Harper has serious body image issues and can find it difficult to look in the mirror or at himself in photographs.
After a trip to Rankin’s studio, however, something changed.
“When I saw the picture of Damian, the one where he’s got his crutches and he’s kind of hunched, you can see he’s not feeling good about himself,” Alison told The Huffington Post UK on the documentary’s screening night.
Turning to Rankin, sat beside her, she continued: “You took the crutches away and then he was standing with his one leg and his prosthetic leg - you didn’t disguise the leg, you didn’t try to put a trouser on it or cover it up - and then suddenly he was stood upright and proud.
“It was phenomenal to witness that.”
Harper’s transformation - from a shy and retiring man on crutches, to an empowered man standing tall - is just one of four narratives shared in the emotional documentary.
Other subjects include David White, 22, who was born with neurofibromatosis, where tumours grow on nerve endings in his face. His condition left him blind in one eye and he was bullied at school, which resulted in him struggling with low self-esteem for years.
While his confidence improved during his time at University, White can still experience bad days which make him reluctant to leave the house.
Carly Barratt, 35, has suffered from alopecia, a form of hair loss, for a number of years. While filming the show, she explained that she couldn’t bear to be seen without a wig because her baldness didn’t make her feel beautiful.
But all of that changed after she’d been photographed by Rankin, sans wig.
“The whole experience has been life-changing,” she told HuffPost UK. “I used to hide away and lack confidence. When I walked into Rankin’s studio for the photoshoot I was a bag of nerves.
“But I walked out of that studio a totally different person.”
Barratt, who has since set up her own business called ‘Alikins’, providing wig, makeup and eyebrow consultations for people with hair loss, is now proud of her unique look.
“I wish I could bottle this feeling and give it to everyone that is struggling,” she said. “I’m now using my experience to help people feel good about themselves, to empower them to love themselves and their newfound beauty.”
While Barratt’s story is one of success, there is another featured in the documentary whose journey is far from over.
Alanah Bagel, 19, suffers from a mental illness called body dysmorphic disorder, which causes her to have a distorted view of how she looks. Her condition means she’s obsessed with taking selfies to ‘self-check herself’ and then posts them online for validation.
Her condition affects her so much that it was touch and go as to whether she’d even turn up to the studio to be photographed.
Thankfully she did and together, after a couple of tense moments, Bagel and Rankin were able to work magic.
Discussing how he makes people feel comfortable in front of the lens, Rankin said: “For me, it’s about natural instinct - you can see if someone wants to do something, or doesn’t want to do something, it’s all about tapping into that.
“I mean that’s what portrait photography has a lot to do with, just feeling what’s going on in the room at that moment and either pushing one thing or pulling back on another.
“Somebody once said to me that I’m very much in control, but actually my whole approach is not to be in control, but to collaborate with the person and really try and get them to feel like you’re creating something together. It’s not a theft of their image.”
For these four (very different) people, ‘No Body’s Perfect’ is a huge victory in coming to terms with how they look and accepting that their appearance might not be the norm, but they are all still beautiful.
Now, it’s society’s job to change the way we treat people who are different. And this is something that both Lapper and Rankin are incredibly passionate about.
“The thing about beauty is that it homogenises people, it makes them want to look the same,” said Rankin. “Selfies all look the same, you don’t look like an individual. Yet individuality, or actually being different, is scary to people.
“This documentary is about questioning all of that. It’s too easy to go, ‘Oh we’ve set this beauty bar too high’. But it’s kind of bollocks really. Everything I do through my work is about trying to cut through that.”
For Lapper, who was born without arms and has been spat at for looking different, ‘No Body’s Perfect’ is about reminding people why it’s important to be kind and respectful to others - regardless of how they look.
She added: “Because I do have a disability, not that I think about it much, it’s important to me to show people that we’re not stuck in a home and that we do contribute. There are so many stereotypes about disabled people and they’re all negative.
“If this documentary changes just one person’s opinion about disability, or even how they feel about their own bodies, then that’s the most important thing.”
And it looks like the documentary already has one success story.
Barratt, who turned up to screening night without her wig, said that when she looks in the mirror now she loves what she sees staring back.
“Sometimes I even think I look better without hair,” she said. “I can now walk around my local town without a wig, with my head held high, like it’s the most normal thing in the world to not have a single hair on my head.
“It’s genuinely the happiest and most content I have ever been.”
‘No Body’s Perfect’ airs at 9pm on 10 November on BBC Four.