Positive Exposure: “Change How You See, See How You Change”

We often complain about being a little overweight, perhaps shorter than we would have hoped for by the end of puberty, or maybe not as muscular as our efforts in the gym should have awarded us. Often times these things weigh more heavily in our own minds than they do in the minds of our peers, but imagine if they didn’t.

Imagine that you were born with a condition, completely beyond your control, that made you appear different from everyone else around you waiting at the bus stop. Imagine that instead of wondering whether or not people were starring at you, you actually knew they were. How would you feel?

Rick Guidotti, former fashion photographer and founder of Positive Exposure, would want you to feel nothing less than absolutely beautiful. In 1997, having spent the majority of his career as a high-fashion photographer, Rick Guidotti was standing at a bus stop when he noticed Margaret, a twelve-year-old with a rare condition known as albinism. Where many would see a girl with pale complexion and stark white hair, Rick saw someone not worthy of a stare, but rather a celebration.

[SEE: Maria Shriver, “Our Body Is Our Compass”]

Shortly after this experience, Rick left the fashion industry where, as he says, “[people are] squeezed or pushed into the parameters of an industrial sense of what [defines] beauty.” It was then that he started Positive Exposure, an organization aimed at creating a community, where physical and intellectual differences are celebrated and embraced for their beauty through the art of photography.

I had the chance to talk with Rick about the work he has accomplished over the last fifteen years and where he hopes it continues.

DANIEL JENKS: Do you still keep in contact with the girl who originally inspired you at the bus stop?

RICK GUIDOTTI: I saw Margaret waiting for the bus and never connected with her. But when the Life Magazine piece on Positive Exposure came out about a year later, there was a little blurb about what inspired this vision and this series of images and I talked about seeing a girl waiting for the bus. Her mother saw the piece and believed it was her daughter and contacted me.

I stayed in touch with the family. Margaret was quite shy and also had a brother with albinism. I actually never photographed her because I didn’t want to push her. If she wanted to do it I wanted it be a fun experience. But we always stayed in touch. She was very excited that she was the inspiration for this project. She also loved the idea of celebrating albinism and differences. She was twelve years old in 1997, but she really got it.

[READ: Positive Exposure in The New York Times]

So over the years I always stayed in touch with her and her family. About three years ago we started working on a documentary with Kartemquin Films (best known for the documentary Hoop Dreams) on beauty and I thought, “You know, Margaret now is the time, I think it’s time for us to photograph.” She agreed and it’s all in the documentary called On Beauty, which releases this year (release date TBD).

DJ: Are there any techniques you use to help people feel beautiful?

RG: It’s funny, nothing’s every really changed for me. Even when I was in fashion, I was always the same photographer. To me it was always about aesthetic, and beauty. It’s not about having a technique or trick, it’s really about the honesty. It’s saying, “Look, here is the light on you. Look at yourself. YOU are beautiful! YOU are magnificent!” And people see that when they are given the freedom to do so.

That’s what is so great about this project is that it gives people the freedom to feel, “I am beautiful, I am amazing.” Which is extraordinary and it happens every time.

DJ: What do you look for in seeking out subjects that further the mission of Positive Exposure?

RG: It’s not that I necessarily look for anything in particular, but what we do is lend ourselves to communities where there are individuals or families with a variety of differences who have previously not been allowed to see beauty in that difference.

It’s about bringing that bright light and mirror in with me, and saying, “No. Look—beauty really exists there.” It’s about seeing how beautiful those kids are from my perspective and presenting that beauty back to the public. Not only does this incredible transformation happen for the public, but also for the subject.

DJ: In your own words, how would you describe the experience you strive to create through public exhibits?

RG: We have this motto that everything we do is based on, “Change how you see, see how you change.” It’s not just how communities will change once they see beauty in diversity, but also how you see yourself. Every image that we exhibit and present worldwide in these, whether in a gallery, a tent in Nairobi, or the Natural History museum in DC, every image is reflective.

[RELATED: Daniel Jenks, “Confidence: A Work in Process”]

Every image is face mounted on glass. As you look into the eyes of these beautiful individuals, you’re constantly becoming more comfortable with their difference. You start to then see, not only the reflection of that individual, but your own best qualities reflecting back as well. Which, we hope, presents opportunities for all of us to see and experience beauty.

DJ: What are your goals for the future of Positive Exposure?

RG: We want to create more programs that work to create a more inclusive society, where all differences are celebrated. Wonderful efforts are being made to celebrate Special Rare Disease day or Disability Awareness Week; our goal at Positive Exposure is to have this dialogue every day. We want this dialogue to begin the moment a child starts in school to the moment that kid retires from the workforce. It has to be part of our everyday language, which is ultimately a human movement.

Ideally, the five-year goal is to have a Positive Exposure Institute, where everyone is welcome and everyone that is living with a variety of differences can come in to educate the public, partake in workshops, and experience a gallery.

We also have two programs right now that are circulating internationally. One is our PEARLS Project, which stands for Positive Exposure’s Ambassadors Real Life Stories. What we’ve created is a web platform where kids and adults with a variety of differences can talk about their differences, but also their daily lives.

[NBC NEWS: Brian Williams’ Rock Center featuring Rick Guidotti]

The second program that we’re developing right now is the FRAME project, which stands for Faces Redefining the Art of Medical Education. We are creating video vignettes of individuals with a variety of genetic conditions in which they teach about the basic tenets of their various conditions. This way we’re not seeing a disease or diagnosis of an individual of person up against a wall in their underwear with black bar over their face. This allows us to teach health care providers about the different tenets of a disease from the perspective of an individual actually living with a certain condition.

PJ living with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita

It blows me away that I can say something like Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita without having gone to medical school. I’m a fashion photographer; I studied film and photography, yet I know about that condition because I met PJ (pictured right) and all of his friends at an Arthogryprosis conference. You don’t forget the name after experiencing something like that and that’s why we’re introducing this to medical education right now.

Ultimately our programs provide opportunities for individuals with differences to experience joy, celebration and empowerment rather than pain caused from staring or, even worse, by looking away.

About the Author

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MariaShriver.com in-house editor & writer, Daniel Jenks, hopes to inspire positive change in males, millennials, and anyone trying to make the world a better place to live. He is currently based in Los Angeles, CA.

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