MY JOURNEY with the concept of beauty has been a long one. It started when I was born into an Apartheid ruled South Africa, at a place and time when the colour of your skin determined all that you could hope to be in the world. 

Having lived with this level of restriction and judgement I can clearly see what drove me to work with those heralded for their beauty while simultaneously supporting people to know that their physical body is the smallest aspect of what makes a person truly beautiful. 

This is a much longer story, but I wanted to share an important part of my journey that took me to India twenty years ago, and ignited my belief in ‘faith lifting beauty’.

I had determined to travel to India by myself for a few weeks. It was here in this incredible land of contradictions that I did a great deal of soul searching. In the faces of its people I saw a courageous ability to embrace life, rather than hide from it and to show up for it every day no matter what pain was endured. 

I felt an intimate admiration for the strength and courage of these people and their willingness to stand up again and again when life knocked them down. My struggle wasn’t theirs, in fact it was nothing like theirs, but still I felt a connectedness and in those moments that most people struggle to find their place in the world. 

In India, every day is a test of survival, a test of faith.  Witnessing poverty and death on the streets made me ask myself question after question in relation to how I had lived my life to date.

If I left the earth today would I believe I had a lived a full life?

Had I shared enough of my skills with people?

Is what I did on a day-to-day basis something that contributed to the world being a better place?

I didn’t have all the answers, but I handed them over to God, knowing that the answer to those questions would help me to seek the truth about what really makes up a good life. 

When I was out taking photographs one day in Madras (as it was then), I noticed a small framed woman standing in the early morning light, untouched and unmoved by all around her, while her sari danced in the wind. 

She stood with her back to the sun, glancing over one shoulder, revealing only one side of her face. To me she looked like she had been dropped from heaven wrapped in a rainbow. 

There was something oddly familiar about this scene. It reminded me of a fashion shoot where the breeze gently moved the models garment while she smile simultaneously, capturing that perfect photographic moment.  

But this woman was no model and she was certainly in no glamorous location. In that moment she turned, and as if in slow motion, her whole image morphed.  

To my dismay I saw that her face had two dramatically different sides that bore no resemblance to each other in any way. The left side was disfigured showing a mound of purple saggy flesh that hung over her cheek, forming a flesh-like drape that concealed any bone structure. Despite this, she turned towards me exuding an air of pride.

Our eyes locked, she smiled at me and then dropped her head to look at a child playing in the mud.  With uncertainty in my voice I asked her if she would like her photo taken. Instantly her rich brown face cracked open with a smile that stretched from ear to ear. She nodded, then in a thunderous voice she called out to the entire village. In response almost every man, woman and child gathered around to watch. I focused the camera, and she gently touched her hair to ensure that it was in place. 

I admired her eagerness, remembering how I often had to beg friends and relatives to take happy snaps.

Unblinkingly she looked into the lens. Her gaze was so intense it asked me, ‘What did this mean?’

I knew what it was to be judged for how you looked, having been beaten and spat on by kids at school in South Africa on a daily basis for the way I looked. Yet in recent years I had lived only in a world that placed an exclusive focus on physical beauty; a world where the word ‘beauty’ was used to justify why some felt privileged and superior; all because of their fleeting looks.

As I stood there I was witnessing the raw truth of beauty. Staring silently at the sagging muscles on this woman’s face I knew I was being challenged by a truth that deep down I had always known - that skin-deep beauty would never be enough.

As I lined up the shot, two tourists stopped and stared with morbid curiosity. The one said, ‘My God isn’t nature cruel?‘

It is so easy to judge what we think is ugly and feel righteous in doing so. In that moment I questioned the nature of cruelty. It was clear that it isn’t nature that is cruel, but rather our lack of compassion or acceptance of differences.  

Undisturbed the woman smiled for the camera, showing me that I could not change or control someone else’s reactions. As she stood with her head high she revealed that she had long ago risen up to meet her beauty and her truth. She was willing to embrace all of who she was and what life had given her, and she was not concerned about how others responded.

As I took her photograph I studied her face. Her appearance disturbed me as it brushed up against everything we are taught about what makes someone valuable. But when I looked into her eyes I felt deeply moved. She had a sense of calm acceptance and integrity that I had never seen on any model’s face I had ever worked on, mine included. This woman was living in a cushion of self acceptance; a living example that the essence of our beauty lies not in our physical characteristics, but in the heart of our character.

Looking at her I was filled with a longing for something that I did not yet truly know and wondered how liberating it must be to have such a sense of peace within one’s self; to leave behind the impossible ideals of physical perfection that so often stops us feeling good about ourselves. I could see so clearly the reality of beauty and in that moment a part of me vowed to help others do the same.

This woman held up beauty, hope, acceptance, and courage amidst chaos, confusion, poverty and judgment. I saw that what we are all taught is to forget that beauty can shine through every face, because the power and the true essence of beauty unfolds from the inside out.

When I had finished taking the photos, this wondrous woman placed both her hands together in the middle of her chest, lowered her head slightly, smiled and walked away. 

I sat on the sidewalk afterwards and wrote what this teacher of true beauty had taught me:

'In life sometimes love presents itself in a form that is totally unexpected,

Rise to the consciousness of the love, not the level of the form.'

Whenever I am tempted to judge someone I remind myself of this.

The day I left Puttaparthi, this wonderful teacher of beauty was there to farewell me. She waved to the man who had reminded the village that she was valuable enough to be photographed, and I waved good-bye to the woman who taught me the power of gratitude.

Still today when I give too much thought to the way I look, I close my eyes and remember a woman who was proud and victorious in who she was and what she represented in the world, and I affirm silently that a face full of beauty is heart full of love.

In remembering this we are all free. 



                                                        Gregory Landsman