Photographs Aren’t Real

As the guy who wrote Uglies, there are certain kinds of news stories that are forwarded to me by everyone. Hi-tech tattoos, bizarre plastic surgery, stuff that hovers, and of course anything having to do with beauty. So it was no surprise that a recent story about the Miss Korea contest flooded my inbox.

The basic story went like this: Plastic surgery is so prevalent in South Korea that all the contestants in their national beauty contest look freakishly alike. Look, we haz proof!


And yes, I will admit that this is a somewhat chilling image. With a few exceptions, it looks like twenty photos of the same woman dressed and styled a bit differently. And yes, the South Korean appetite for plastic surgery is large. According to this NY Times article, about 20% of women there have had some sort of cosmetic procedure. These are true facts.

But whenever you run into a story like this one, that depends so heavily on a telling photographic image, please remember one simple rule: photographs aren’t real.

Photographs are artifacts of technology, records of specific combinations of light, lens, and angle. Photographs are easily manipulated. Photographs are two-dimensional representations of a 3-D world. Photographs can be more or less accurate, but they are never the whole story.

Take the worst photo ever taken of you and compare it to the best ever taken. Do they look even remotely like the same person?

For that matter, pick up your phone and take a photo of yourself right now. Then walk to a different part of your room and take another. Same place, same hair, same clothes, but often these two photos will look completely different. Not because you photoshopped them or cheated in some other way, but simply because the living, breathing, moving reality of you got sliced into two different tiny moments of time.

The forces of light, shadow, and expression morphed you into two different versions of yourself. Neither of which was real, because photographs aren’t real! Using a single image to reflect a real human being is like describing a lush, complex novel in a sentence. Sometimes you can tell which which book someone’s talking about, but a whole lot goes missing.

Back to our Korean beauty queens. Here are two of them before and after hair, make-up, and photoshopping got involved:


I say again: photographs aren’t real.

Korea doesn’t have some mass convergence of facial phenotypes caused by cosmetic surgery. Maybe they will one day, and maybe in certain social circles there one can spot noticeable similarities. But all we have proof of here is a particular aesthetic of hair, make-up, and photoshoppery associated with a particular beauty contest.

There is no emergency. Return to your homes, Crims.

(The before-and-after images first appeared on Ilbe, and as far as I can tell, reached the English-speaking infosphere on koreaBANG. Thanks to both for this valuable service.)

So whenever you read about a scientific study on beauty that relied on people rating photographs (as I did while writing Uglies), or see a story about how bloated or haggard some poor celebrity has become, or come across at photos that make you feel bad about yourself, just remember . . .

Photographs aren’t real. But you are.


On a COMPLETELY UNRELATED NOTE, here is my new author photo! I haven’t done one in ten years, and given that I just turned fifty, I figured it was time.

In the interest of full disclosure, I offer you the image before and after it was slightly retouched by my sister-in-law, noted visual effects artist Niki Bern, and include my notes to her.


Please do not actually USE that one as my author’s photo.

Instead, go with this version:

photo by Niki Bern, 2013

Everyone has permission to use this in all media forever. A bigger one can be found here.

47 thoughts on “Photographs Aren’t Real

  1. Wow, that is one chilling thought! And totally emphasizes the importance of teaching media awareness to students these days. It’s scary how many teenagers don’t realize the people they see in magazines don’t actually look like the pictures. (But more and more students are beginning to think about it so that’s a good sign.)

  2. You know, I like the before photos of the beauty queens MUCH better. They look like they’d be fun to hang out with. The after photos make them look like they wouldn’t talk for fear of smudging their makeup.

  3. I agree with @4. πŸ˜€ The manipulated photographs and make up make them look like they’re made of ice, despite the smiles.

    I was sort of surprised when I saw this, too, because earlier this year during Spirit Week, the seniors at my school had a ‘celebrity day.’ There was this guy (yes guy as in male) in my P.E. class who dressed up a Miss Korea. It was hilarious at the time, but now I don’t know what to think….

    @The Star Trek conversation from the last thread: I sort of like the new movies better, because that’s how I got into Star Trek. I’m watching the old series now, and I think the original characters will always be my favorite. After all, the Kirk-Spock-Bones-etc. cast is the only one I’ve ever watched. I don’t think I’d like Next Generation or Deep Space 9 as much because they’re different characters, despite my being named after Kira Nerys (my name is slightly different though, but still based off hers).

    @Defenestration of Prague from last thread: OH GOD. I swear, AP European History will haunt me for the rest of my life. I remember studying that. The only reason I remember that is because it was in Prague and Leviathan starts outside Prague. πŸ˜€ (And it was funny.)
    (More proof of APEuro haunting: A rerun of Criminal Minds that I was watching (“Corazon” from Season 6 I think) started with a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT. Haunting, I tell you.)

    @Alek’s voice being prissy from the last thread: I was surprised by Alek’s voice in the audio book, too (only I was listening to Goliath), but mostly I thought it was a cute interpretation. After all, it’s not really out of character. Deryn does say he’s “quite up himself” (I LOVE that part, by the way). But it still didn’t change the way I quote the books (when I mumble madly under my breath in the back of class hehehe).

  4. WOW, uh, those are scary pictures. they just look kind of fake almost, there’s so much cosmetic work done on them. but UGLIES MOVIE NEWS? PLZ?
    @5 i can’t wait for world history! i have U.S. history next year. i just want world and/or Europe history.
    also the whole defenestration thing: me and a bunch of friends all threw stuff out windows. it’s catching on. πŸ™‚ but ya gotta love Latin i forget what the word is exactly, but there’s literally a verb “to throw/be thrown out a window”. such a classic, pretty, but violent language. it’s fun actually!

  5. Any author photo that includes the note “sideburns rampant” is perfection in my book. You should really use the first one… WITH the annotations.

  6. Much love for this post and its sentiments. Also, note that the makeup style is almost identical for all the contestants – and makeup is a VERY powerful tool ( for just one example).

    There are many subtle differences in nose, eye, face and lip shape and in proportions – people just need to look a bit closer instead of immediately dismissing the girls as ‘identical’ (often with a side sneer of ‘look at this rampant plastic surgery problem!’).

    Nice author photo – annotated and otherwise πŸ˜› It takes real skill to achieve that two-tone facial hair – teach me your ways!

  7. “… come across at photos that make you feel bad about yourself, just remember . . .

    Photographs aren’t real. But you are.”

    That quote should be framed and hung in EVERY SCHOOL- FOREVER. Especially that last part cause it really got me. We all fuss about our photos and try to hide the unattractive photos friends take of us. Our confidence levels fluctuate on what we think we look like when we look at a photo of ourselves(We tend to pick out all our flaws instead of focusing on all the good. Then remember all the flaws and that’s how we see ourselves). Photographs aren’t real but you are! Makes so much sense… did I just ramble about a minor epiphany … sorry guys but I LOVE THESE BLOGS.

  8. How interesting. I was aware that most celebrity photos are nothing but makeup and photoshop, but I guess untouched photos lie, too.

    @6: You have no idea how happy that makes me. πŸ˜€ You’re now one of my best friends forever, lol. I should set up a FB page for everyone to go like. πŸ˜›
    A Latin verb meaning such a thing?!?! I must know what it is! Also, the word “defenestrate” itself comes from the Latin “de” meaning “out” and “fanestra” meaning “window.” (My neighborhood actually has a Fenestra Dr. and I vandalized it to perfection yesterday [and by “vandalized,” I mean taped the paper letters DE in front and TE in back]). It was glorious. πŸ˜€

  9. @6 I have U. S. history next year too, but all I want in European history. My school offers in in AP and IB, and I am so excited! That is the one class I’m looking forward too most out of all four years of high school.

  10. @5(Star Trek comment)- well, I think ou should give The Next Generation a try. I love it. I mean, Kirk and Co. Are great, but you just can’t beat Data and Worf. Well, that’s my opinion, but you know, with these new movies, I am getting more intonthe original character. I will watch the series, but after I finish Dr. Who πŸ™‚

    @Defenestration comments: that sounds so absolutely cool!! I would love to do it, though I guess I’d have a hard time explaining it afterwards, as I don’t think the idea has got to where I live. For next May 23 I’ll be waiting by the window with all my math work in my hand, probably…

    @6- I wish I had World Hstory next year. I had it last year, this year I have World Geography and next year I have Mexico History. It is cool to learn about my country but it gets kinda old after seeing the same things of history all through elementary school… I hope next year will be better, but I think the teacher hates me already πŸ™

    On the actual post…Seeing th first photos was kinda creepy. Like, at first I didn’t really see anything wrong, then everyone started to look similar. I agree with 1 and 4, that way too much emphasis is being put on how much better makeup and surgery makes you look, and that just makes peolpe think they look horrible, while they look better without any makeup or surgery.

    You should send that last sentence to every beauty contest worldwide, Scott.

  11. Looking closely I noticed slight differences between the photos, but the contestants do look nearly identical at a glance. I loved your post, Scott. The fact that photographs can only capture a fraction of someone is something I know I’ve noticed but not something I’ve really thought about before. Great author photo by the way.

  12. @12: Whoa that is so awesome. About the Mexico history thing. CONFIRMATION THAT THE U.S. IS NOT THE ONLY COUNTRY THAT DOES THAT. I wonder why classes that specialize in U.S. or, in your case, Mexico history are even offered at a higher level if they continually teach it to you in elementary….(Sorry about your teacher though. The AP US History teacher at my school already knows me and expects me to take his class since I was in his wife’s APEuro class. I would feel bad if I didn’t take it….)

  13. @15- I know! I keep wondering how even the teachers don’t notice that they teach the same thing over and over again. Basically every year it’s just the textbook cover that changes, but well…you can still get a good teacher πŸ™‚

  14. @17: That’s horrible. I feel sick just reading it. It’s one thing for people to undergo surgery in complete disregard of their natural beauty (usually making themselves actually look WORSE in the process), but double-jaw is so dangerous! Over half the recipients suffer side-effects. I can’t believe people actually do that to themselves. πŸ™
    But even disregarding the danger aspect, just look at what regular plastic surgery does. Half the celebrities out there are living proof. And getting it done to make yourself look younger… *shakes head* It’s like Dolly Parton and Joan Rivers versus Betty White: honestly, who looks better?
    (Oh, also teenagers who get boob jobs? It’s like a) what kind of parents would even let their child do that, and b) you probably aren’t even fully developed at that age!)

    Of course, all of the above strictly pertains to vanity-driven surgeries.

  15. @17- wow. That was something. It’s like…my mind can’t get around WHY, WHY do people do that?? it’s just senseless to get a surgery you don’t need-and a dangerous one, by the way-just because of vanity or ego or just to look well.
    Everyone should be able to look in the mirror an be happy with who they are, without taking such a risk on something that could render you sick or paralyzed or whatever.

    I also hate how advertising drives people to do just that. Like, the one in the article: “everyone’s done it but you”???? why does the media have the need to pressure people like that just to get money?

    Okay, now I’ve started rambling. That happens a lot.
    Sometimes the world’s a bit too crazy…

  16. Totally off topic! For school I have to do six text reviews in English. Anyway I choose So Yesterday as one of them. Today my teacher gave me a sheet with feedback and this is what it said: “So Yesterday by Scott Westerfield” :O

  17. @21, 23 how’s everything? where is everyone? what happened??

    maybe we are the only Westerfeld fans left, and we must work together to save Scott and the others, and the world! …i wish…

  18. Hello! I’m still here πŸ˜›
    I’ve been horribly swamped with work and studying. I start exams this week so everything’s a bit too crazy. Today I’ve got Spanish, and the exam is a play made by all of eight grade. It’s probably going to be a disaster, but it’s going to be cool. I’m pretty nervous though, wish me luck… πŸ™‚

  19. Can I just say that you, Scott Westerfeld, are an amazing human being? Thank you for reminding all of us not to compare ourselves to the people on the magazine cover.

  20. Scott — one of my fave pics is the one snapped down in Birmingham, AL. You and me smiling for the camera!
    ~~ The cookie lady

  21. Hi! I’m back–briefly. I probably shouldn’t be here at all, but I’m so lazy nowadays. Eleven more days of school….not that I’m counting….WHY DO WE STILL HAVE HOMEWORK. I need to sleep….
    Okay bye I’ll go terrorize homework instead of you guys….xP

  22. School’s out for me! YAY! πŸ˜€

    (=?=)? Ve~

    I think the Korean women actually look very pretty even if they have too much makeup and surgery. Please don’t kill me!

  23. What a great blog post! I’ve seen this picture before but I didn’t know that it was fake. I love your honesty πŸ™‚

  24. @30 enjoy your freedom for me. i have school until the 25th, and that’s leaving early. i hate snowdays only because they add to your school year! i think your Italy emoticon is fine πŸ™‚

  25. All of you, shut up! Here in New Zealand we’re just coming into our winter! And we won’t have proper holidays until December πŸ™ πŸ™ so shush!!!!

    Has anyone else noticed how Scott has his belief’s/values (I guess you’d call them?) mixed into all his books?? Like for instance none of his characters ever drive cars, they don’t eat meat (apart from once in Goliath?), they all believe in evolution and (this one is dumb) the love interest often has green eyes? πŸ˜›
    Anyone else notice this or was it just me?

  26. @34: You are an amazing person. I can’t say I’ve noticed that, but that is very cool. Love the last one. πŸ˜› I’m not sure about the meat-in-Goliath thing….

    Also, it’s two am here! Yay! Sorry for any typos and delusionalness. I just finished a project on Victor Hugo and I have too many darlings. Grantaire is my darling cynic, Enjolras is my darling Apollo, Hugo’s daughter Adele is my darling schizophrenic, Marius is my darling idiot….I think you get the point. Anyway I just realized that I haven’t been here in ages.

    OOHH!!! We have Merlin-watchers here, yes? I FOUND THE FIFTH SEASON ON AMAZON STREAMING!!!!!!! You have to pay for every episode (hurry up Netflix), but it’s worth it.

    Zac-la: Sorry about the weather. It’s getting really humid where I am….Not the greatest thing either.

  27. @35: I still haven’t seen season 4 because my mom and I watch it together, and she NEVER FEELS LIKE IT/HAS TIME FOR IT. Ugh, I will have words with that woman, lol.

    And need I remind everyone that it’s disgustingly humid here in Texas all the time, and I would much rather have it be COLD (although no school is nice, πŸ˜€ )

  28. Let me tell you something, about two summers ago here (2011?) it rained the whole damn summer. Not even kidding. The days when water didn’t actually fall from the sky it was so humid that it basically felt like it was raining anyway…
    Last summer so mostly hot and dry though πŸ˜€ although it actually turned into a drought.. :O

  29. Over here it’s horribly hot. We get almost 40ΒΊCelsius each day, and with rain in the night the heat gets even worse!

    And I’m finished with school on Wednesday. Yay!!!!! πŸ™‚

  30. Heh… The little add-on at the bottom had me (an avid user of photoshop for non-cosmetic, face-mutating purposes) considering how to edit your face to fit the recommendations you made. Actually, it would be pretty easy.
    Maybe when I have time I should photoshop your author photo for Uglies, Pretties and Specials… πŸ˜€

  31. Those photos are creepy, but so are Miss America and Miss USA photos. Photoshopped to death.

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