A thing of beauty

Alisha Shinde
Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Marinka Masséus, who contributed photographs for the Radical Beauty Project, shares her unique experience of working with models with Down’s Syndrome 

Beauty for many around the world is all about how pretty you look. However, Radical Beauty Project was initiated to challenge such opinions and understandings of beauty in the contemporary culture. Radical Beauty Project is a fashion and art photography project blurring boundaries between disciplines and working to provide an alternative vision for beauty today. The project has successfully engaged with over 40 renowned fashion and art photographers globally and features only models with Down’s Syndrome. Talking to Marinka Masséus, who has contributed photographs to the project, we find out more.
Masséus explains that the project is an international photography project initiated and organised by Daniel Vais who is deeply dedicated to giving people with Down’s Syndrome their rightful place in visual arts, in addition to their rightful place in society. In his initial email to her Vais wrote: “Engaging with 40+ renowned fashion and art photographers globally, this project features only models with Down’s Syndrome. These models are stylised as objects of beauty and worth, and all shoots are undertaken with the same dedication, talent and creativity as major fashion campaigns. A first of its kind, this collection of powerful images will be turned into a collectable, coffee-table edition art book and a major touring exhibition.” 

A unique experience 
Usually Masséus does her own projects, so when she received the mail from Vais, she wanted to decline it but something stopped her. “I felt that in this case, I wanted to say yes... I decided to trust my feelings and responded that I would love to be a part of it,” she says. The project is dear to her because of the wonderful young women that she’s met. She recalls her first shoot which was arranged by Vais where she got to work with Juliette. “We met at my studio in Amsterdam for an entire afternoon and she stole my heart,” says Masséus adding that she has no words to describe the experience of working with her. “Her sunny disposition, her dedication, patience and perseverance, and, above all, her ability to give love in its purest form. I went home floating on clouds,” Masséus explains. 

Feeling grateful, Masséus realised that this experience had been lacking in her life. She had never met a person with Down’s Syndrome before and realised that she had no knowledge except for peripheral information that had surrounded her. “I also realised that if it was true for me, it was probably true for many people,” she says. This was the moment that she decided to contribute to the project and turn it into a series which is called ‘Chosen [not] to be’ which is entirely a part of the Radical Beauty Project. 

What society thinks
Talking about her shots for the project, Masséus says that she stayed true to her style and kept the photos natural and pure. The concept grew when she spoke to the young women and their mothers who spoke lovingly about the precious addition to their family, expressing that most of the challenges lie not with having a child with Down’s Syndrome, but with responses from society. “The constant obstacles that hinder their child to fulfill their full potential,” she points out.

For Masséus, the most amazing part of the project was meeting Juliette, Margot, Emma, Eveline and Tessel. Most of the women live independently in group communities and have jobs they thoroughly enjoy. “I feel privileged and blessed to be able to share my experiences through my photography and to be a part of the conversation,” says she adding that the most challenging part was translating her ideas and feelings conceptually into images. “To subtly convey the message while at the same time showing their individuality, beauty and essence. The fine line between making them truly visible, while at the same time conveying the restrictions and barriers placed upon them,” she says.
 However, working with the women, she also observed some similarities between them, first and foremost their purity. “What you see is what you get, there are less filters which is utterly refreshing, and such a valuable mirror held up to the rest of society and I found them so very well capable of guarding their boundaries, and therefore it was all the more heartwarming to experience their willingness to accommodate me tirelessly in all my crazy ideas,” shares Masséus. 
She also noticed their deep dedication and a strong will to succeed, to prove themselves. “It must be exhausting and beyond frustrating to be underestimated all the time and to be judged solely by the slant of your eyes and their wish to make people see beyond their preconceived notions is very palpable and that, in part, explains their intense dedication in contributing to the project,” she says. 

Embracing change 
When it comes to beauty standards in the photography industry Masséus says, “The industry has been quite one-dimensional for decades, mostly driven by the male gaze,” which she feels is now changing, in part because of more female artists and editors, in part due to changes in society. She points out that she embraces these changes with all her heart.

Talking about a more inclusive society, Masséus feels that many marginalised groups are getting more vocal, gaining confidence and claiming their rightful place in society. “Whether it is the LGBT+ community, people of colour, women resisting the objectification of the female body via #MeToo and #TimesUp or the community of people with Down’s Syndrome,” she says that it is long overdue and just in time. “Especially in case of Down’s Syndrome because the pace of technological advances concerning prenatal screening dictate that we need to have this discussion about inclusion sooner rather than later,” she concludes.

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