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  • Reviewer: Queenie Lee

  • Last summer,

  • I had a really boring desk job.

  • I had bills to pay,

  • so I stepped away from my career in journalism

  • to take a position in online marketing.

  • It was six months of dull meaningless labor,

  • but that's where I was first introduced to this amazing website called Fiber.

  • And Fiber is an international freelance website

  • where you can contract people from all over the world

  • to do things like animation, graphic design, video editing.

  • And one day, while I was supposed to be working at this boring desk job,

  • I was actually looking through the Fiber website,

  • and that's when I came across this page full of photo editors.

  • And these are people from all over the world,

  • places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Greece.

  • And they were saying things like "I can make your image perfect."

  • And that's when I first had an idea.

  • My oldest sister always says that really good ideas are simple.

  • And in that moment, I decided that what I wanted to do

  • was take a picture of myself,

  • where I was wearing no makeup and had no fancy lighting,

  • and I was going to send it to these photo editors

  • and ask that they make me beautiful.

  • Because I had no idea how this sort of experiment would turn out,

  • but I hypothesized that my request would be interpreted very differently,

  • depending on the individual and the culture that they'd grown up in.

  • So, I sent my image to over 50 photo editors

  • in as many countries as I could find.

  • And as the edited images began arriving in my inbox,

  • this really weird idea I had started to get really interesting.

  • People had changed the color of my skin to be lighter or darker.

  • They'd shave down my eyebrows to be pencil thin or thick and bushy.

  • I was dressed in a hijab,

  • and in some instances,

  • my face was completely reconstructed.

  • Well, it took about a month,

  • and I spent a couple hundred dollars,

  • but in the end, I still didn't have any concrete idea what this project meant.

  • I couldn't spot any consistencies or patterns,

  • regardless of where the photo editor was from.

  • And so for a moment I considered this sort of DIY social experiment

  • to be a total flop.

  • But I thought, you know, the concept is interesting,

  • and I felt that it provoked a really important dialogue.

  • And so, you know, and I figured,

  • someone somewhere out there is going to want to see this.

  • So I titled it "Before and After" and I sent it to BuzzFeed,

  • on the chance that "Hey, maybe they'd consider publishing it."

  • And, to my surprise, they did,

  • and I thought, "Great, published by BuzzFeed; check that off the list."

  • And then,

  • something completely unexplainable and unpredictable

  • was set into motion.

  • And not 30 minutes after that article went live

  • did I see a message in my inbox

  • from an editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, asking to publish Before and After.

  • Every morning I wake up,

  • and my inbox is submerged

  • under the tsunami of fan mail and media requests

  • from all over the world.

  • I'm interviewed on CNN, Al Jazeera, Good Morning America, The Today Show.

  • And they're all asking the same question:

  • "What does this mean? What does this project mean?"

  • And my response ...

  • is I don't really know.

  • You know, I wish so badly that I had this PhD in anthropology or something

  • so that I could give some definitive answer

  • about what it was that I'd created.

  • But in reality, I'm a journalist,

  • and my job is really all about asking questions.

  • Personally, I think that the results of Before and After are thought-provoking.

  • But they're not necessarily significant.

  • You know, this project doesn't define beauty

  • or what it looks like around the world.

  • In fact, the most significant thing that this project did

  • was start a global conversation

  • around something that we think about and experience every day

  • but still don't understand.

  • And that's beauty.

  • The moment that Before and After officially went viral,

  • (Laughter)

  • I started getting these Photoshopped images of myself

  • from strangers all around the world.

  • And they're saying things like,

  • "Oh, I noticed you didn't have a photo from my country"

  • or "I wanted to give it a shot."

  • You know, all these people

  • (Laughter)

  • want to be a part of my collection, and at first, that's so flattering.

  • But after like the 500th image, it all starts to feel a bit invasive.

  • You know, like my face has become this global paint-by-numbers project.

  • And it's even used without my permission in things like online ads

  • to sell makeup and wrinkle cream,

  • and my favorite: Peruvian IIama parkas.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's not uncommon that creators lose control of their work when it goes viral,

  • but remember this wasn't just my work.

  • It was also my face,

  • and I'd become a part of the public domain.

  • About a week later, the bloggers and the content aggregators,

  • they don't even bother asking my permission

  • before they put publish Before and After.

  • My project is just smeared across the internet

  • and it's been reduced to clickbait.

  • And what's worse is that the way it's being interpreted

  • has just become more and more shallow.

  • You know, my thoughts, my words are omitted,

  • and I just see my photos online next to comments like,

  • "Rather a question of skill than of heritage ...

  • most of these Photoshoppers did a rather weak job,"

  • and, "This set of photos just proves

  • that even Photoshop can't make a beauty out of a very plain face."

  • (Laughter)

  • The funny thing about the internet and social media

  • is that it can be so connecting,

  • and, at certain moments, so incredibly isolating.

  • You know, I had no way of reaching out to these millions of people

  • to explain to them how they completely missed my point.

  • All I could do was sit back and wait for this storm to blow over.

  • And it took about a month

  • for my viral stardom to subside to a ripple.

  • And I really couldn't help but feel like I'd been swindled by the internet.

  • I decided that the only way

  • to take back the narrative around what I'd created

  • and prove that there was still more depth to this project

  • was by doing it again.

  • So I call my friend Priscilla Yuki Wilson,

  • and she's a journalist based out of LA,

  • and I say, "Priscilla, I want you to do this project,

  • but this is yours now, and it's not mine."

  • So, Priscilla takes that idea,

  • and she sends her image off much in the way that I did.

  • Only as a biracial woman,

  • her project sparks this really interesting dialogue

  • around Western beauty standards and ethnicity.

  • (Laughter)

  • Another month goes by, and this time a plus-sized fashion writer

  • has decided to redo the project.

  • Only she's using it to talk about beauty and body image.

  • When I think it's all over,

  • a few months later,

  • I start getting these messages from young women all around the world

  • who are doing their school research projects

  • or even their college thesis on what is beauty,

  • and they want to study my project.

  • They send me their Powerpoint presentations and their videos,

  • and I see photos of my face cut out and glued to poster boards,

  • and it's so cool, it's amazing to imagine the conversations

  • that these young women have brought to their classrooms.

  • It was about a year ago that I launched Before and After,

  • and I still get requests from friends, and fans, and family,

  • insisting that I create more editions of this experiment.

  • But really, I don't consider this to be my responsibility

  • because this doesn't belong to me anymore.

  • Before and After belongs to whoever feels

  • that they have a perspective worth exploring,

  • one that continues to build on that original conversation.

  • Recently, one young woman sent her full body image

  • to photo editors around the world.

  • This man recreated the project,

  • and someone even sent photos of this cat.

  • (Laughter)

  • And again, I don't consider this to be plagiarism,

  • because Before and After really belongs to whoever feels

  • that they have a perspective worth exploring.

  • When I look back to where this all began,

  • and I wished so badly that I had all the right answers,

  • I realized that this project was a success,

  • in part, because it kept asking questions.

  • As a journalist, it's my job to help you see things from a new perspective,

  • to look at your deeply held beliefs

  • and think, look and see if maybe there's a room for a new angle,

  • a new way of seeing things.

  • That's how I approached this project,

  • I kept it simple,

  • and I focused on a subject

  • that's experienced by absolutely everyone, everywhere

  • but to find in a million different ways.

  • This really was not a scientific study; it was more of a cultural survey,

  • and it was one that prompted a really compelling conversation,

  • and it's these conversations that really resonate with us.

  • Ones where there's not always a right or wrong answer

  • or even an answer at all.

  • Because in the end,

  • the most important thing I asked was not "What is beauty?"

  • but "What do you think?"

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

Reviewer: Queenie Lee

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