Justine Olivia Tellier
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? This is the question behind photographer Eylül Aslan’s latest project: Trompe L’Oeil. For six months, Eylül met with 20 different men from Tinder and asked each match what they loved and didn’t love about their own physical appearance, as well as hers. She then photographed the features they chose, and positioned the images side by side to highlight the deeply subjective nature of our perceptions of beauty.
Eylül found inspiration for the piece while watching her friends swipe left or right. “I’d only seen other people use Tinder, and I’d played it a bit with male friends,” she says, as if it were a game. As she continued to play, she noticed how often her tastes differed from her friends. “‘No, she was so cute,’ I’d say, ‘why did you swipe left on her?!’ No one could explain why they liked or disliked someone. They’d decided in milliseconds.”
Eylül, who is married, found the process delightful: “It was so much fun to see all these people and the way they presented themselves; I had to make an account,” she recalls. “And I, too, found it hard to say why I’d swiped one way or the other. But soon I started to see people I knew, people who knew I was married. I thought, ‘Well. This is going to be a bit of a problem.’ So to continue playing, I wrote a description: ‘I’m a photographer and I’m casting for an art project.’ It worked, but then I asked myself, ‘Well, what actually is my project?’”
“My initial thought was to meet boys and girls at the same time and photograph their favourite features to create the so called ‘perfect male’ and ‘perfect female’ from a collage of body parts, but I didn’t actually get any matches with girls,” she says, shrugging. So she decided to go only for men, and examine the way they saw themselves and others. For a photographer known for her work on the female form, this was a first.
A few matches took offence, complaining that Tinder was for dating, not art. “I didn’t loose any breath trying to convince them,” Eylül says, “because so many guys were interested. Some asked for more information so I told them the premise: I’m going to meet you and ask you what you love and don’t love about yourself and about me, and then photograph your answers. I was really shocked when they all said ‘yes’.”
Eylül met her ‘dates’ in parks and cafés, or occasionally at her Neukölln apartment, where the light was better. “Everyone looked different in real life – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse,” she laughs. “Their personalities differed a lot from what they projected in their profile. All of them were different from how I’d imagined. There was one guy who wore leather and looked like a tough guy who listened to heavy metal, but in person he was like a little cat. It was surprising to see how insecure perfectly handsome guys could be.”
“Sitting down in front of complete strangers, I was kind of at their mercy,” she says, looking back. “Sometimes they would go on for two hours about a girl who broke their heart in highschool because they were overweight – and I was like, ‘OK, this is not what I signed up for!’ But people really opened up. I think because it’s such an intimate question – to say what you love about yourself and then about the person in front of you.”
“One guy said he liked his ribs because he used to be overweight and they are a constant reminder of how slim he is now. That made him feel proud,” Eylül notes. “His choices were so different from mine. He had beautiful eyes and hands but they weren’t his favourite features. His ribs were the first thing he thought of because they were so connected with suffering.”
Preferences, for different physical aspects of ourselves and others, are the focus of Eylül’s piece. “We have a society that puts pressure on women to look pretty. Men – straight men at least – don’t seem so bothered by it.” But on Tinder they are forced to confront notions of beauty, to choose a look, and display themselves in ways they think women find attractive. “I became really interested in how men present themselves on this app. If a guy thought he had a nice bicep and wanted to show it, he would strike a pose,” she says, puffing up her cheeks and flexing her arm. “He’d highlight the bicep. It’s not as obvious as a girl doing a duck face but he’s making a choice about what he thinks will appeal to women.”
“People focus on the way women are pressured,” she continues, “but I think men feel just as stressed by it as we do. Perhaps it just isn’t so talked about. There’s an idea that men don’t dwell so much on their feelings but I think they suffer just as much as women. Maybe a society so concerned with how women look doesn’t pay attention to the appearance of men, but the issues remain.”
Given how open men had been with her, she wanted to even things out – to hear what they thought about her own body. “I asked friends first what they thought of me, but noticed how difficult they found it to answer. I think there is more honesty in strangers,” she says, “though they always struggled to say what they didn’t like.” Some chose the easy way out: something inoffensive, but perplexing nonetheless: “I don’t know what was going through their heads when they said, ‘ears’ – they’re small, and distracting maybe?”
Others were more candid. “If you look at what society finds attractive in women, it’s often full lips. I have small lips and a wide face with a tiny mouth, and some men didn’t like that. I always knew I didn’t have a stereotypical look but I loved my face. It wouldn’t matter if ten guys said, ‘Nope,’ I would still like it.” She never asked whether those answers meant she was ugly. “It didn’t affect my views. I’d convinced myself, and their views couldn’t change that. What surprised me more was actually how many men liked my face, because I always thought it was different.”
Evidence was building to support Eylül’s theory that attraction is arbitrary – that beauty is entirely subjective. Rarely can we agree on what we find attractive about ourselves, let alone others. “During the project, I was changing the self-image of my subjects, but I was also playing with my own,” she says. “In the end I felt much more at ease with how I looked. I realised that it’s not important how other people see you. It’s about how you see yourself. My whole project is meant to say, ‘If I didn’t categorise these photos as beautiful or ugly you couldn’t tell the difference.’”
For Eylül, working exclusively with men offered a shift in perspective from her previous projects. “I’ve already published two books on feminist topics and it’s been my work all along, so this project challenged me to do something new. I’m interested in men, and I wanted to know how it felt to work with them. The body and the sex changed, but it was still me behind the camera. My techniques still applied,” she says. But that isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. Working with men brought one tangible difference: sexual tension. “I mean, if it wasn’t from my side, it was from theirs. They were opening up about such private issues and there I was, taking photos of their half-naked bodies! When it was finished I was like, ‘…OK, that was intense,’” she says, with a slow exhale.
With no time to dwell on any awkwardness, the second part of the project needed to be completed: the meticulous photographing of the parts of Eylül’s own body that each match had selected, using mirrors and self-timers, while double- and triple-checking shots. “That was the most difficult part. For ten years as a photographer, I’ve always been the one deciding what to photograph,” Eylül says. “For the first time, [the subjects of] these 80 photos were decided by the men that I met. I didn’t have the chance to capture what I found interesting. I couldn’t say, ‘You think you love your eyes, but I love your shoulders.’ This time it was only what they told me to. It was very different from how I usually work.”
Trompe L’Oeil by Eylül Aslan
Nevertheless, like all affairs that are built on novelty, Eylül’s love for Tinder eventually waned. “I was using Tinder for my work and it was so exhausting. You have to find a perfect match, and make sure you can talk, then go on a date and spark some sexual attraction. If this is what you do to date someone, it seems like a lot of work!” she says, shaking her head with a smile. “It’s so much easier when you’re outside or in a café to see someone reading a book that looks interesting, when you like the way they’re dressed, or smell, or move. When you’re on Tinder, it’s a single photo, a frozen two-dimensional image, and you have seconds to decide if they’re attractive or not. Maybe they just photograph poorly or don’t show their personalities so well on social media?”
This is a question Eylül’s matches might have asked themselves before agreeing to a date, but in Eylül’s company, some found her and her views enticing. “I think there was a little hope from a few on the dating side. ‘I’ll help her with her project and maybe we’ll click,’ they probably thought. A few asked me on second dates and I had to say ‘No, I’m sorry, this is only work for me.’” And just like that our conversation draws to a close – only work, after all.
Learn more about Eylül and her work on her website or follow her on Flickr and Instagram. Trompe L’Oeil is available for purchase now.