“I need to make other women feel less alone,” says Sophie Harris-Taylor, the photographer whose Epidermis series – showing the realities of skin conditions such as acne, rosacea and eczema on 20 bare-faced women – goes on display in London on Thursday.
It is ironic that anyone with a skin condition could feel lonely, given that 60% of Brits will suffer with a skin condition at some point in their lifetime, but in a world of airbrushing, the unfiltered nature of Harris-Taylor’s work is not the norm.
The 31-year-old suffered with acne throughout her teenage years and in her twenties. Although her skin is better now (she went on three courses of the drug Roaccutane and had chemical peels to treat it) she says it is still not perfect. As a result she wants to remain behind the camera instead of in front of it.
Her personal experiences fuelled her desire to show skin as it really is for many women. “It really knocked my self-esteem when I was younger, I was really self-conscious and that’s what made me want to do the project. To make other women feel good and not be ashamed of their skin,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Disrupting shame is one of the biggest goals of the project, says Harris-Taylor. She says that even even when she was looking for women to appear in the project using social media, mainly Instagram, she often couldn’t tell whether a woman had a skin condition or not because it was so well covered, either physically with makeup and concealer, or digitally.
“It can be quite a hidden thing,” she explains. “I think so many of us feel the need, and the pressure, to cover it up. But I want to open up that conversation and normalise it a bit more.”
Although we are seeing more body positivity in the media than when Harris-Taylor was younger (and she only had Hollywood actresses in magazines to look up to), she says there is still a way to go. She says she is pleased there are a greater variety of sizes and shapes on display and brands no longer always Photoshop stretch marks off of models bodies (ASOS has been praised for leaving ‘tiger stripes’ on their swimwear and lingerie models).
But in spite of this progress, the models still always had perfect facial skin. “It seems quite strange that we’re still ignoring the fact that every person you see in those pictures was being airbrushed to have their face skin look flawless. It was being retouched to look like plastic,” she says.
In the last few years brands have started showing models with less-than-perfect skin – Glossier, the cult American beauty brand founded by Emily Weiss in 2010, released a Facebook advert in 2018 where a model had a whitehead on her cheek and visible pores – but they are still the exception rather than the rule.
“You just don’t see real skin so you aren’t seeing the textures or pigmentation that so many people have,” says Harris-Taylor.
As well as hoping to change the face of advertising (literally) Harris-Taylor says she wants to open up the conversations among people who feel they need to keep quiet through embarrassment or worrying about upsetting each other.
“When I was younger and suffering I didn’t talk about my skin - apart from maybe a 10 minute conversation with your GP or your dermatologist. Other people, your friends, they don’t want to broach it for fear they’ll upset you, but then people themselves don’t bring it up cause they’re embarrassed.”
She also wants society in general to be more understanding of those who have skin conditions and to be educated about the causes. For example, acne is often nothing to do with being unhygienic or not drinking enough water. Harris-Taylor says this ignorance makes people feel worse about their skin because the implication is that they could fix it if they tried harder.
“It’s often quite hard for people to understand what having a skin condition is when they don’t have one themselves,” she says. “[There is] a lack of education as well, people aren’t necessarily aware of what causes skin conditions – just think you need to wash more and eat better. This is not necessarily true.”
This then leads to those with the conditions feeling like they need to cover up whenever they leave the house. “When we see lots of makeup around us, we feel the need to conform to that too,” she says. “I’ve gradually learned to accept my face as it is and leave the house without cover up.”
Although this might seem like a minor vanity thing to those who haven’t had skin problems, Harris-Taylor says it runs so much deeper than that. “People who have skin conditions all feel differently about how much it affects them, but there are people out there who are having their mental health and wellbeing damaged by this,” she says.
And if people are suffering they need to talk. “People need to feel comfortable talking about skin with their mates, to share what they’re going through because there are far deeper implications for people’s mental health.”
This then extends to the issue not being taken seriously by medical professionals who write it off as a teenage phase or a vanity problem. “I’ve come across this not being taken seriously,” says Harris-Taylor. “I’ve heard from people that it’s hard to get referred to a specialist dermatologist by their GP.
“But without a referral GPs are not able to prescribe medications - they can’t prescribe that much, or they just might not have a great understanding of the problem because they’re not a dermatologist. I don’t know where we place blame for that – not the NHS cause they do so much but it should be taken more seriously now.”
Harris-Taylor says since the photographs have been made public she’s realised just how much people have been wanting to see more images like this to reflect their lived experience.
“I continually get messages every day from men and women across the world saying how much the project is helping them,” she says. “I want people to know what what they are going through is normal and they can be beautiful and have a skin condition. I want them to know that.”
Epidermis is on display at The Printspace Gallery in London, from 6 -13 September from 9am-7pm.