If you could change anything about your face, what would it be? Maybe your eyes would be a little larger–or a different color entirely. Maybe your ears would be smaller, your nose straighter, your lips fuller. And when people saw this new version of you, what might they deduce about your personality? Perhaps a more stereotypically beautiful face would make you seem kinder and more compassionate–or cruel and cold.
With Original/Ideal, British photographer Scott Chasserot has set out to discover our subconscious ideals of attractiveness. Eventually, he wants to examine how those ideals are interpreted by onlookers.
“If you see the difference between the reality of a face and that person’s preconscious ideal of him or herself, you start making assumptions about what that person prefers or dislikes about themselves,” he says. “Who they would rather be as a person, their deepest desires.”
Original/Ideal focuses on the first part of this exploration–the preconscious ideal. Chasserot choose 15 subjects and then used Photoshop to create 30 distinct versions of each person’s face. Some of the images adhered to “canonical standards” of beauty such as symmetrical and proportional features. Other images were skewed toward what we generally consider “ugly.” In tweaking the original image, Chasserot strove to create a series of “credible” or realistic representations. “If I showed the images to a third person who didn’t know the subject, would they say, ‘that’s obviously not a real person, that looks like an alien’ or would they believe it was a real human being?”
Chasserot then outfitted each subject with an Emotiv EEG brain scanner, a device that tracks engagement–i.e. mental focus–by measuring electro-magnetic waves in the cerebral cortex. Subjects were shown each of the 30 images for a mere 400 milliseconds, long enough for the brain to have a reaction, but too fast for “cognition to kick in.” As Chasserot explains, subjects didn’t have time to “lie to themselves” about which images they found compelling or beautiful. His series shows the subject’s real portrait beside that person’s EEG-based preference.
Chasserot’s findings aren’t all that surprising. Though his method wasn’t exactly scientific, he says “it’s pretty clear that people prefer more symmetrical, proportional faces and larger eyes.” Complicating this, is the presence of novelty. “A lot of people reacted highly to a change in eye color,” he says.
And not all subjects reacted strongly to the most beautiful images. Take the five-year-old kid. “His preferred version is really quite strange,” says Chasserot. “He might simply find it funny and therefore, the increase in mental focus for the preferred image might be an offshoot of his sense of humor.”
Chasserot is hoping that this first iteration of Original/Ideal will be adequate proof-of-concept to implement an interactive installation. He’d like to show the portrait pairings to audiences and record their real-time reactions to each. He has also considered enlisting scientists to help standardize the manipulations across the 30 photos. That way, he might detect patterns among the faces that people find engaging. Alternately, he says, this work could be used to help patients with body image issues. But Chasserot sees himself first and foremost as an artist. “I’m just hoping to start a discussion,” he says. “About what we prefer to see and how we prefer to be seen.”