“What’s wrong with your skin?” “What’s on your face?” “Why do you look like that?”
In a moving portrait series, photographer Peter DeVito gave young models the chance to respond to these insensitive comments about their appearance.
DeVito, 22, a freelance photographer based in New York City, invited models with conditions including acne, alopecia, vitiligo and albinism to show off their natural skin — and to challenge the hurtful messages they’ve heard by literally spelling them out on their faces.
“The whole message behind the work is that I just want people to accept people and to understand that even though we can all look different, we're all still human,” DeVito told TODAY Style.
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Diandra Forrest, a model with albinism, posed with an insensitive question she has heard in the past about her skin tone: “Are you a ghost?”
“Back in the day, the common joke was, ‘You’re so white you look like a ghost,’” she wrote in a handwritten note accompanying the photo. “I acquired unwanted nicknames like Casper and Snow White. This really bothered me because I knew that regardless of my skin, I am black. Albinism is a condition that affects the exterior. I am fierce, funny, compassionate, and nurturing. These are some qualities that matter most.”
Another model, Sarah, called out a hurtful comment people have made about her about her birthmark in the past: “You’d remove it if you could.”
“I feel lucky to have it,” she wrote alongside her photo. “But even if I didn’t, I’d never try to change it or cover it up to meet a societal beauty norm. My self-worth doesn’t come from the way I look, it comes from who I am. Putting any kind of value on something as subjective and accidental as physical beauty has never made sense to me.”
This photo series has personal meaning to DeVito, who has struggled with acne in the past and has dealt with people’s misconceptions about the condition.
“Whenever you see somebody with acne, people always just assume, like, ‘Oh, they're probably not eating right,’ or, ‘Oh, they probably don't clean their face,’” he told TODAY. “They just make all these assumptions about them based on how they look. And so I wanted to figure out a way to address that in a creative manner and give other people a chance to weigh in.”
He added that it’s important to give models the chance to speak up for themselves, because that doesn’t always happen in the fashion world.
“I also just like to give models the platform so that they can speak about things. Because in the fashion industry they tend to use these people for how they look, but we never get to hear how the models feel,” he said. “That's why I have those handwritten sections from each model.”
DeVito’s photos struck a chord with people on Instagram, with each photo racking up thousands of likes and comments.
"I wanted you to know that these pictures inspired me so badly and I finally can say that I am no longer embarrassed for having a birthmark or freckles in summer,” one person commented on a photo in the series. “I just really appreciate what your work is doing.”
“I love this!! I have alopecia too...this person is very beautiful and I admire everyone who can openly embrace their baldness,” the commenter wrote.
DeVito said he was “in shock” to see his photos go viral, and says he is still getting messages from people thanking him for making them feel more comfortable in their own skin.
As he continues his photography career, DeVito says he wants to continue giving marginalized people a voice through his work.
“Yes, it was one series, but I'm trying to carry that stuff throughout all of my work until the end,” he said. “I'm forever going to photograph people that I feel like aren't represented enough in the public.”