Looking For Beauty: Photographer Creates a Project For People With Uncommon Appearance

Audio description: a colored photo. A young woman is standing beside a burgundy wall. She is wearing black leather fingerless gloves. She holds her hands up close to her face. Her face is meticulously made up, her eyes are brown, and the lipstick is bright red. The face is disproportionately enlarged, as if we were looking at the woman through a magnifying glass.

Being different is difficult in our world of gold standards, but photographer Yulia Otroshchenko ventures to prove that there are many types of beauty. To do this, she launched Inner Beauty project dedicated to people with unusual appearance and physical peculiarities.

Vladimir Vaskevich, Special View portal correspondent, interviews the photographer and learns the stories of her project participants.

The Photographer Who Raises Your Self-Esteem

Audio description: a colored photo. An exhibition hall with portraits hanging on the walls. A young black-haired woman is holding a hand of another woman with dwarfism, squatting in front of her. The former is Yulia Otroshchenko, and the latter — Yekaterina Popova. Above them, Yekaterina’s portrait is displayed. In the picture, Yekaterina is wearing a blue blouse. She is sitting at a table and looking in front of her. Her hair is dark blond with grayish strands, her face features are expressive. Her big blue eyes are accentuated with brown eye shadow.

Inner Beauty is a project at the junction of photography and storytelling. Most of Yulia Otroshchenko’s models are people with disabilities. Yulia interviews each one of them and then arranges a professional fashion photo session.

Her principle is to take pictures of project participants in a manner that will not give rise to pity in viewers, will not make the audience speculate on the models’ peculiarities. The photographer wants her project participants to bring to mind rock stars on their album covers, not people with difficult life path.

Yulia has been a professional portrait and fashion photographer for over 10 years. She is convinced that every person is beautiful and expresses this attitude in her works with much talent. Friends call Yulia The Photographer Who Raises Your Self-Esteem.

“It was quite flattering, but at some point I realized that I reached my professional limit. I lost interest in showing the beauty of people whose low self-esteem was caused not by some objective reasons, but solely by the peculiarities of their environment and background,” Yulia says.

There are people with disabilities among her relatives. “My goddaughter was born with a jaw development pathology. My ex-husband had a rare Ehlers—Danlos syndrome, he had group III disability. Both are extremely beautiful. But they both had to walk a long and difficult path to show the world they had the right to be understood by the society”.

As Yulia says, Inner Beauty is a way of expressing her social responsibility, it is her self-challenge to test her professionalism. The core idea of the project is to heighten the inclusiveness of the society towards those who stand out. All the projects participants are transformed by a team of stylists and makeup artists. For the models, this is also a part of therapy and an opportunity to look at themselves from a different point of view.

“To people with no physical impairments, the project and the exhibitions we organized demonstrate the importance of appreciating things they have here and now, and using their potential to the full. As a rule, the project inspires the majority of viewers to get an optimistic and wise attitude to life, helps them understand the ways to transform their approach to complicated and even tragic situations,” the photographer says.

The Inner Beauty project exists since 2018. More than 40 persons became its models, 15 exhibitions were organized to display the portraits. It became the winner of Russian Volunteer national competition and got a prize at We Are Together international award (Social Mass Media nomination).

Life Stories That Inspire

Yulia chooses to portray only those people who inspire her by their example. “I’m focusing on strong people who are kind of role models. Today, I often get requests from people who would like to take part in the project, but the fact that a person has a disability is not enough. To become a model in our project, one must be an accomplished personality, a professional; one must inspire others by one’s philosophy and life style. In most cases I learn about such inspiring persons myself and invite them directly,” Yulia says.

Yekaterina Suvorova became one of such models. She has a genetic condition that resulted in facial disproportion. The condition is called Goldenhar syndrome and is quite a rare thing.

“Nearly the entire right side of Yekaterina’s body is undeveloped. In addition to a visible asymmetry of her face, her rib and her shoulder-blade stick out. As a child, she had a squint which occasionally comes back even now. This was the reason why she was cruelly teased and bullied by other kids at school,” Yulia shares.

Yekaterina does not remember many negative episodes from her childhood; however some of the memories still haunt her. At 13, other teenagers gathered in a tight circle around her, shouting insults, calling her names and spitting in her face. Bullying left a deep mark. Yekaterina shrank into herself, she was afraid to speak up, to express her opinion. But her strong personality, psychotherapy and marriage helped her alleviate the effects of childhood trauma. Today, Yekaterina Suvorova is a successful children books illustrator, and she shares her warmth and spirit through cheerful drawings.

“Together with Anastasia Silyaeva we shot an incredible story about her attitude towards life and death. This young woman fought cancer all her life. At three she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, distant metastases were found in her kidney and lungs. She went through a whole course of therapy, including chemo and two operations, her right kidney was removed, but at that time her life was saved. However, several years later, both her parents died of cancer, and it became clear that her family had a fatal diathesis to this disease and that the girl would probably have to fight it all her life. At 24, while taking a shower, Anastasia found a calcification in her breast. It was breast cancer. And it started all over again, but the consequences were even graver. Chemo, mastectomy, hormone therapy. At first, all was going fine, and for a couple of years the disease didn’t show. Anastasia went back to work. But then, a new visit to her oncologist, a new tomography, and metastases were found in her liver, then her spine, ribs and hip bones,” Yulia says.

One of the nights, she continues, the young woman tried to rise up from her bed, strained too much and broke one of her neck bones.

“Everyone thought that was the end. But she managed to come through, even get back on her feet. That was the time when I met her. She was extremely weakened but happy that life had given her another chance. Talking to Anastasia, the strength of her character astonished me and all of my team,” Yulia shares.

In late 2021, the project participant passed away, but her story is still there, and it helps people reconsider many things.

Svetlana “Ember” got her nickname because of her fourth-degree burns. The fire left her scars and marks that will never fade. Her story began with the death of her father. He helped to save people from a burning house, but died himself. That broke the girl’s mother, who began drinking heavily and beating her daughter up.

“When the girl was four years old, the mother got to leaving her alone for days, not taking care of her daughter. One of such days, the light went out in the apartment building, and the child clumsily tried to light a candle. The fire caught not just the candle wick, but the synthetic clothes the girl was wearing. After that, the hospital, intensive care, 45% of the body burned. The doctors said that saving her was a miracle,” Yulia shares.

After the hospital, nothing changed in Svetlana’s situation. Her mother carried on drinking, but child protection services looked away. At twelve, the girl was brought to an orphanage, where she was bullied and abused because of her scars.

Audio description: a colored photo. An exhibition hall. Three vertical photos hang against a red brick wall. The first one shows a lean body of a young woman covered with spots. The other portrays a close up of another woman’s asymmetrical face. Mascara stains are running down her cheeks as if she had been crying. The third photo shows a woman’s arms and hands covered with burn marks.

All these events affected the young woman’s mental health. Svetlana grew up, found a partner, but she still needs continuous assistance of a psychotherapist.

There came a time when Svetlana decided to show her scars to the world, to share her complicated story. She started a social media page, addressed several model agencies specializing on people with non-standard appearance. That worked.

After an article in the media, Svetlana became popular. Thousands of people joined her blog, they left hundreds of comments full of admiration and support. The young woman was telling her story again and again for different editions and even drafted an autobiography for a publishing house. But soon she realized that it became difficult for her to tell apart the real life and the Internet reality. That popularity and constant interviews traumatized her and brought back dark memories.

“Svetlana deleted all her social network accounts, but after prolonged negotiations she at last agreed to give me an interview and take part in a photo session. Today you may read her story at the project website, too,” tells Yulia Otroshchenko.

How The Project Transforms Its Participants

Audio description: a colored portrait. A fragile nude young woman is standing in front of a navy wall and looking over her shoulder. She has straight shoulder-length dark blond hair, and there is a big dark spot under her left eye.

As of today, over 15 exhibitions were organized within the framework of the Inner Beauty project, they displayed the portraits and life stories of its participants. The project transformed the life of its creator, and also those of her models. For example, Anna Marinich, a woman with alopecia, stopped wearing a wig. Through her participation in the project, she got noticed and became a professional model. Maria Menshenina with ICP was invited to take part in Miss Civilization beauty contest. Tatyana Zyulikova with glaucoma says that it was her participation in the project that made her believe she was attractive.

I, Vladimir Vaskevich, also took part in this project. My photo session took place in 2018, the main portrait was used in exhibitions and, what is more, became the cover for my book, Travels With No Limits.

Yekaterina Sazhina, one more of my project participants with visual impairments, dazzled me with her cheerfulness. She has only 3% of eyesight left, but that does not bar her from living a superactive life. She sings, performs for the public, runs her household, raises children, goes in for sports and has plenty of other hobbies. Her husband is visually impaired, too, but that does not prevent the couple from feeling happy and enjoying every moment. They are turning their life into a global hobby. While interviewing her, I got particularly caught by her phrase: ’Don’t look at all your troubles through a magnifying glass. Rather look carefully at something good’,” the photographer shares.

Don’t Be Afraid To Stand Out

In the near future, Yulia Otroshchenko is planning to broaden the geography of her exhibitions and continue to look for new participants, shoot their stories and publish them at the project website.

“With each exhibition, the project attracts more and more viewers. They bring their families and friends. I often see people with disabilities there. That is why at the next stage I would like to adapt the exhibition as much as possible for different kinds of visitors. For example, to provide each photo not only with QR codes with the life stories of our models, but make detailed audio descriptions for them. Thus sightless people will be able to enjoy the exhibition, too,” Yulia says.

To induce positive changes in your life, you may simply visit the exhibition or check out its website and get inspired by the participants’ life stories.

“One of our project’s models, Anna Sannikova, has heterochromia. It is a very rare genetic peculiarity, causing people to have mismatched coloring of the irises. She is constantly hearing other people discussing her peculiarity: ’Either she’s lost one of her lenses or she had some kind of an accident’. People ask whether this feature affects her eyesight. But our peculiarities show us that being different is okay. That every one of us is beautiful and unique. It’s just that some people need to make an effort to stand out from the crowd, and for others, nature itself did the entire job,” Yulia Otroshchenko quotes Anna Sannikova.

Yulia hopes that her photo portraits help the audience transform their ways of thinking and inspire them to do something big and significant.