On Beauty by Joanna Rudnick is an inspiring documentary short which shows that the power of the photographic image can be used productively to reveal the physical beauty of individuals falling “outside” the social parameters of mythic, heart-breaking loveliness. The film focuses on Positive Exposure, a movement to encourage all of us to see the real beauty in those who are different and unique from us. This is a seminal, educational movement with a universal message for young and old alike. The filmmaker reveals the germination of how and why Rick Guidotti (award winning fashion photographer who worked for GQ, L’Oreal, Elle, Revlon), created and founded Positive Exposure. It shadows him on his various journeys to highlight Positive Exposure’s global mission to free the socially dispossessed from nullifying images which promote fear, depression and negative objectification of their bodies and appearances.
Underneath the main thrust of On Beauty, though this theme is subtle, we come to understand that the media is noxious and discriminatory in its limiting perpetuation of what it defines as “beautiful.” For example by seeing the iconic image “types” of those who are selected for the cover of fashion magazines for men and women, the designation of who is worthy to make the “cut” for inclusion is paramount; it excludes a huge segment of the population and especially those who are less than physically “perfect.” Thus, such images by the limited nature of who is selected and who is not, demean anyone who appears or seems different, i.e. those with a genetic, physical or behavioral divergence.
Most of us, especially the young, understand the global culture’s obsession with the external over the internal. All of us know we have to “represent,” behave in a certain way, be eye-candy to meet standards of physical acceptability along a range of “hot” cultural looks. Acute images of models and celebrities, their one-size-fits-all appearance and iconic, photogenic looks hound us daily. Images negatively brainwash women and men to objectify themselves and transform their appearances in the hope of looking prettier, younger-looking, hotter, “buffer”; in the workplace looks and an attractive appearance are perceived to help one gain the competitive edge. Photographs of “the perfect” have been used to oppress, to define who is socially acceptable, to infer who is “good” and to select who is worthy to be loved.
Ultimately, such norms of appearance cause incredible damage. The filmmaker interviews and shows clips of Jayne Waithera (she has albinism), as she works and visits with Rick Guidotti on his trip to Nairobi, Keyna. Jayne’s mother rejected and abandoned her at birth because albinism was tantamount to a curse and ancient folkways persuaded midwives to kill such children. If not for Jayne’s grandmother (whom she is named after), she would not have been raised with encouragement and love. She would not have had the inspiration to seek out Rick Guidotti to work with Positive Exposure and help others in her sphere of influence in Nairobi against the discrimination and encroaching danger of being an albino. In video clips of focus groups with those who have albinism, Rudnick shows that in countries like Burundi and Tanzania, those with albinism are referred to as “ghosts” and “money.” They are killed for their “magical” body parts which are sold to the highest bidder.
Repeatedly, as Rudnick shadows Guidotti on his mission, we come to understand from the film subjects and Guidotti that the non-inclusive and restrictive lens of what the cultural media standardizes as beautiful has lead to dire results and circumstances. Guidotti and Positive Exposure are changing this.
Rick Guidotti, a successful celebrity fashion photographer (Cindy Crawford was one of his subjects), grew tired of stamping out photography that required little ingenuity. Make-up artists, designers, hair stylists did the work; he just snapped. Bored with the lack of challenge, superficiality and repetition, he realized he disliked being that type of photographer. To his credit when he asked himself was that all there was to his life’s work, he answered a resounding “No.” From that point, he began to push beyond the narrow focus of the media and fashion industry. He felt compelled to reveal the diversity of beauty in those not ordinarily deemed attractive, those oftentimes deemed as “freaks” in film: those with albinism (how this idea came to him including the woman who inspired him is fascinating).
After being turned down countless times by magazines who were fearful and stultified by his idea to shoot the beauty of women with albinism, Life accepted. Rudnick includes an interview with Former Editor of Life, Isolde Motley saying when she looked at his ideas she said, “Wow. He just turned convention on its head.” Six weeks later, the photographs and the article were a huge success. For the first time, people were able to understand the difference between the myth and reality of those with albinism. They were able to see Guidotti’s perception of these women’s beauty, for his lens captured that they were indeed, beautiful. Most importantly, the article identified how these women felt demeaned by the lies about albinism in films and by being stared at and treated as “weird,” and “non human.”
Rudnick includes clips of Guidotti’s past photo shoots and reveals in Rick’s commentary his surprise that the Life article was a revelation and an inspiration for many: it packed a tremendous wallop about our limited notions of beauty. After the article he received calls from parents of those who had albinism and those who had genetic physical and behavioral differences (various syndromes like Sturge-Weber and Chromsome 18), who wanted their children to be uplifted in a positive light, and felt Rick could help them.
In various segments, we see that the gross discrimination by the kids’ peers and the attitude of doctors (about chromosome 18), was nullifying and destructive. Rudnick shadows Rick visiting the family of Sarah Kanney (who has Sturge-Weber Syndrome), and there are clips of Sarah’s parents Dave and June discussing Sarah’s condition and the necessity of her home schooling when she left school in 8th grade because she was tired of people staring at her; she felt alone and uncomfortable. The filmmaker also includes Rick at a Chromosome 18 Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada which he was reluctant to shoot and participate in. However, once he was there, he realized that “his whole life was a preparation” for being there and photographing the joyous kids.
Cleverly, Rudnick emphasizes the themes of how non-inclusive cultural images harm and destroy the souls of all those who “fall short” of the glory of physical perfection. She even includes a meeting between Rick and a proud Doctor archivist who photographed intentionally, unflattering medical photos of the various deformities of children with genetic syndromes. There is a clip of Guidotti confronting the doctor for treating the kids as no better than objects/specimens that are non-human. Guidotti questions the doctor’s protocol and lack of humanity by taking such depressing, sad photos of the children’s deformities and encouraging the children at a young age to see themselves as sick, defeated, abnormal oddities with little hope. The segment is appropriately critical of the doctor and calls to mind the horrific treatment of “The Elephant Man,” Joseph/John Merrick, who was treated as “less than human,” and a medical curiosity.
Rudnick edits this film with precision. She covers a lot of ground and keeps a driving interest by moving back and forth from Jayne in Keyna, to Sarah in New York to the conferences Rick has become involved in with his work for Positive Exposure. We see Rick’s different photo shoots with Jayne and others with albinism in Keyna. Then the filmmaker covers Rick’s uplifting shoots with Sarah and others in the US. Finally, Rudnick closes in on the milestone changes Rick has brought to Sarah’s, Jayne’s and others’ lives with his enthusiastic attitude and joyful photography that sees and shines these kids beyond the world’s labeling ugliness. The milestone for Jayne is her being employed to lead Positive Exposure Kenya. After Sarah and Rick speak and spend time in focus groups at an Anti-Bullying Program at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey, Sarah states her intentions to get her GED. Most probably because of Rick’s enthusiasm and Positive Exposure, she will go on to college.
Rudnick’s short documentary is powerful in intention. It conveys an extremely important message about our own humanity and the humanity of others. It decries media images which negate and discriminate by their “weeding out” to only a narrow band of “beautiful, thin, perfect people.” The film leaves us wanting more information about the lives and journeys of the individuals in her film that she obviously cares about. Rick Guidotti, Sarah Kanney, Jayne Waithera have formed a connected and free community that is revamping how we look at others through and beyond the typical standards of beauty and acceptance. Rudnick wisely allows them to encourage and inspire us to define ourselves and accept our physical appearance through their example as “outliers” of beauty labeled unphotographable by the media. The film encourages us to stand up to noxious cultural definitions of beauty that are not only unrealistic, but are patently false. As we do this, we are supporting each other in a productive way. We are creating unity and purpose for ourselves and others.
Clearly, this enthusiastic, passionate and driven photographer has stumbled onto the pulse of the culture with Positive Exposure. Likewise, the filmmaker’s message should resonate with the truly beautiful people like Guidotti, Waithera and Kanney who want to inspire and uplift others from the heart by embracing such a movement. It is easy to make something of yourself for a season, if external beauty is your outward shadow. For those in the film like Sarah, Jayne and the others, their beauty lies in their freedom to call themselves beautiful when the culture questions their power to do so. They have made their beauty from a truth that will last, even though their peers’ temporal external beauty will have faded away. That is Rudnick’s final statement. And it needs to be expressed again and again for us to viscerally get it.