Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cara Phillips: The TGP Interview

For the past few years, Cara Phillips has been photographing in and around cosmetic surgery offices, documenting the “beauty” machines used for plastic surgery, the surgical chairs and the rooms in which these procedures take place. Cara came to photography after many years of working as a child model. She is co-curator of the brand spankin' new website,, dedicated to female photographers.

© Cara Phillips

TGP: Can you give me some sort of statistics? How prevalent is cosmetic surgery in today’s
society? How have the numbers changed in the past few years?

CP: All of these numbers are from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and I think it's pretty clear that women are getting most of the procedures performed in the US. As you can see, since 1997, there has been 457% increase in total procedures, with the numbers for Botox and other injectables skyrocketing. The less invasive procedures have taken the 'fear' and long recovery time away, but you have to return many times a year forever to keep up the results. This is why the industry is making so much money. You can also see that young people are very open to having surgery in the future as well.
  • There were nearly 11.7 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2007, as reported by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
  • Since 1997, there has been a 457 percent increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures. Surgical procedures increased by 114 percent, and nonsurgical procedures increased by 754 percent.
  • The top five surgical cosmetic procedures in 2007 were: liposuction (456,828 procedures); breast augmentation (399,440 procedures); eyelid surgery (240,763 procedures); abdominoplasty (185,335 procedures); and breast reduction (153,087 procedures).
  • Women had nearly 10.6 million cosmetic procedures, 91% percent of the total. The number of cosmetic procedures for women increased 1 percent from 2006.
  • The top five surgical procedures for women were: breast augmentation, liposuction, eyelid surgery, abdominoplasty and breast reduction.

TGP: What about the statistics for teenagers?

CP: Teenagers under 18 are still a minority but 18-24 is the 3rd largest group having cosmetic procedures done. Preventive Botox (for girls in their 20's), is written up regularly in fashion magazines. The idea being if you freeze your face before you have wrinkles, you will never get them. If you add up the cost, it is potentially $1500 - 2000 a year for life. That adds up to an enormous sum for practitioners and manufacturers. There are still no studies on long-term use of Botox.

As you can see, young people are very open to having surgery in the future as well.

Would consider cosmetic surgery for self, now or in the future, by age [includes both men and women]
  • 10% of Americans age 65 or older
  • 21% of 55-64 year olds
  • 27% of 45-54 year olds
  • 34% of 35-44 year olds
  • 34% of 25-34 year olds
  • 27% of 18-24 year olds

TGP: What do you think is causing this trend for young women to choose to make such permanent changes to their physical appearance? Do we blame it on the media or ourselves?

CP: I think blame is a futile exercise, especially on an issue this complicated. There are so many factors that go into a society forming cultural trends, as an artist I am more interested in the feelings this places evoke for others and me. I think self-hatred or self-judgment is an inevitable outcome in a culture so focused on success, beauty and material goods. With cosmetic surgery's entry into the mainstream via television, celebrities, advertising and magazines, we should not be surprised that young people are so open to getting surgery.

© Cara Phillips

TGP: Let’s turn this discussion over to your photographs. How did you begin this project?

CP: I started the project my second year of studying with Joel Sternfeld at Sarah Lawrence. Initially the work was more broad and more documentary in style. I used available light, and shot in spas, hair and nail salons and at make-up counters. Eventually I decided that those images were not quite capturing the intensity of experience I wanted. So I focused on cosmetic surgery.

© Cara Phillips

TGP: Your photographs are, for the most part, images of rooms and objects. How did you decide to photograph these things, and not the people themselves who are involved with this industry?

CP: Sometimes these choices are planned and sometimes they just evolve. At first I did a few portraits of staff, but after I met with gallery owner early in the work who encouraged me to photograph all the “really freaky plastic surgery victims,” I knew that I was not interested in making that statement. I am sure most women who get surgery spend an inordinate amount of time judging themselves and I have no interest in judging them again. It is the nature of portraiture that when you look at an image of a person you make assumptions and judgments about them. It’s human nature. Also, I did not want to point a finger at the doctors, or the patient and assign blame to them. I don’t think either one of those groups is bad, or doing anything wrong. I am much more interested in the cultural underpinnings and the emotional impact.

TGP: The machines have a frightening beauty in the way you photograph them. I think that the dramatic spotlights you use make the machines look like they might come alive in an abandoned hospital at night. Some of them seem a bit threatening. Was it a conscious choice to photograph the machines in this manner?

CP: Yes, after I abandoned the more documentary style I moved very quickly to create the psychological mood of project. Let’s just say, if you could be inside my head at these places it would feel like my images.

TGP: I really enjoy your photographs of the chairs. I think people tend to not really notice the chairs in their doctor’s offices. I know I never really looked at them before. But after looking at chair after chair after chair, they all become very different and exciting. Why did you choose to photograph the chairs?

CP: The chairs are to me are the emotional core of the project. When you sit in one of those consultation chairs you are admitting that you are flawed and need to be fixed. And that you are willing to risk your life to fix whatever it is that is wrong with you. Then the doctor comes in and not only agrees with you, but often suggests other things that need to be fixed. It is sort of like anti-therapy to me. When you sit in a therapist’s chair, they try to convince you that all the terrible things you think about yourself might not be true, but in these chairs they are. And in a way there is something very alluring about that. You almost want to sit down just to know that you were right. Of course, I think most people are not aware of this when they are there.

© Cara Phillips

TGP: When looking at so many images of the chairs, we also begin to notice the differences and similarities in the rooms themselves. The rooms with the treatment chairs are all very white, clean and clinical. I had sort of expected that all of your images would feel this way – very hospital-like and objective. Were you surprised in how much individuality there was in the rooms when you started photographing?

CP: I guess not, as the cosmetic surgery industry is about surfaces. It is a very competitive field and while people may not pick their internist on the look of their office they definitely select their cosmetic surgeon based on it. I imagine surgeons feel a great deal of pressure to keep up with each other and to spend money on their décor.

© Cara Phillips

TGP: I’ve heard people tell you that they think your work is very masculine. What do you think that means?

CP: There is a cold, clinical style in my work, and I suppose that I have objectified the chairs and machines in a similar manner to the way male photographers often objectify the female form. I don’t really think you can say something is male or female, but there are certain types of images that women commonly take, which men never do. I am not sure why.

TGP: For a while you worked as a make-up artist in a department store. How did that experience affect this series of photographs?

CP: Hearing women disparage themselves every day made me develop a great deal of empathy for them, and a great deal of anger at a culture that encourages us to spend endless amounts of money in the pursuit of feeling like we are good enough. And probably made me a great deal more concerned with my own appearance. And I had more make-up and beauty products than you can imagine. I still have a bit of a love affair with the promise of a beauty product. That would be a great job, writing the verbiage on the packaging.

TGP: You say in your statement that “this body of work coincides with a long and personal struggle with body and self esteem issues.” How has making these photographs helped you deal with this struggle?

CP: When I started studying photography I was still grappling with a binge-eating disorder. My photo professor knew about it, and I remember that he said photography was going to be my way out. At the time I was not sure what he meant, but now I do. So much has happened since then, I really am a different person.

Once, a food counselor gave me a picture of a bunch of intertwined circles and a list of things, food, relationships, career, love, giving to others, etc. The idea was we get our nourishment from many sources, and food is only in the outer circles. We fill ourselves with things that have deeper meaning. I know its kind of cheesy but it actually really accurate. Once you make the switch, food becomes only a source of calories and vitamins to keep us healthy, and a source of causal enjoyment. For me, once I found something other that food suddenly I had room for all the other stuff too.

I think cosmetic surgery is a similar need. It’s an attempt to fill up the hole created when the primary needs are not being met. Of course, I differentiate between cosmetic procedures and people who are disfigured who get surgery. I think you can only imagine what its like to be in an office where they do liposuction when you have suffered from 20 years of body self-hatred. But now, I am so much more concerned with making my images that I how big my thighs are. On most days at least.

TGP: Do you think that the outside pressures for women to have perfect bodies have subsided or become more prevalent since you were a teenager?

CP: My experience is unique because I was modeling from age 8 to 15, so I am not sure I can give a fair answer. But it does seem like the standards for body size and looks becomes harder to achieve and more important all the time.

© Cara Phillips

TGP: At what age did you start photographing? Can you tell me about your first experience with a camera?

CP: My mother loved photography, she had Nikon 35mm cameras and won a photo contest sponsored by the local paper. So there were always cameras in the house. But for my 21st birthday my father bought me a Nikon N70, which at the time was an expensive camera. I loved that thing, and from then on I used to take million of vacation pictures. But, I guess if I think about it, it was on the first vacation my mother and I ever took after my father left that I really discovered photography. I was in 7th grade. We went to California - I had never been before. We started in San Francisco and then took a bus down the Pacific Coast Highway to LA. I was obsessed the whole trip with taking pictures with a cheap point and shoot. I guess by involving myself in shooting I had a way to distract myself from the fact that my father was not there, and that he was never going to be on a family vacation again.

TGP: Is there one specific photograph that has always been an influence on the way you see things? Which one? Why?

CP: I am afraid I way too much of Gemini for that! I feel like I have always been surrounded by imagery, when I was young my mother had all the best fashion photography books. Avedon, Penn, Scavullo, Annie Leibovitz and I was very interested in fashion then. So I looked at W, Vogue and Bazaar starting in elementary school.

I was also a huge movie fan and used to watch every old movie that came on. I really loved the golden age of Hollywood, the glamor, and film noir. My brother and his friends were six years older than me and were really into French new wave cinema, so they were always renting these beautifully filmed foreign movies or watching David Lynch (when I was in fifth grade). So I would say movies were my primary visual inspiration. It wasn’t until much later that I started looking at photography. I will say every time I see August Sander’s portraits I reminded of why I want to be a photographer.

© Cara Phillips

TGP: Do you have any advice for young girls just starting out in the photography world?

CP: I don’t think I could have made work with the same complexity and depth when I was younger, I needed to experience life and find myself a bit first. I think it is some ways is easier to develop visual acumen than to make work that expresses emotion, intellect and says something about the world and about the medium of photography. So I would say go out and live. Study everything you can, psychology, sociology, philosophy, look at all types of art, travel, real literature, biographies, go out with your friends, fall in love. Eventually all of that stuff informs your work. The taking pictures part can be learned. And use your camera for now like a diary. Take notes with it, record moments. Have fun while you are young.

TGP: Tell me about your new project, Women in Photography. Can teenage girls submit work?

CP: Absolutely! Go to for our submission guidelines.