Witney Carson McAllister, 25, a ballroom dancer from Salt Lake City who won the 19th season of “Dancing With the Stars,” knows to the naked eye her complexion seems smooth, silky and blemish-free. “If you saw my skin you wouldn’t think I had any damage,” she said.
But as a survivor of skin cancer, she also knows appearances can be deceiving. So at the beginning of June she traveled to New York City to have a UV portrait taken by Pierre-Louis Ferrer, a Parisian photographer who specializes in them.
For such pictures a special camera, or a regular camera with a filter, catches UV light instead of visible light, exposing damage under the top layer of skin. Bruises, sun spots, freckles and other pigmentation all become apparent.
McAllister’s portrait was not flattering. It showed damage around her nose, most likely from sun beaming into the car when she drives. “I need to get bigger sunglasses,” she said. But she still decided to share it on Instagram with her million-plus followers. “I’m going to post a before and after,” she said. “People need to know what is happening to their bodies.”
UV photography has become popular with young people looking for ways to scrutinize their bodies and monitor their health. Some influencers, like Carson, use it to advocate for skin protection. Others simply want an interesting photo to post online. Dermatologists also use the tool to coerce their patients into taking better care of their faces; brands do so to sell more sunscreen.
Also in June, Walgreens gave a party at Milk Studios, a fashion hub in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district, that showcased the technology. (McAllister had her photo taken there.)
“I’m in the beauty industry so I feel I know I have a lot of skin damage,” said Jeanette Zinno, 33, a television personality who writes about cosmetics. “I’m in the sun a lot. I’ve had burns. I have sun spots and freckles. But while I can’t change the damage from my past, I still thought it would be interesting to see.”
In the 1970s and ’80s UV photography was used mostly for scientific experiments, like to study bee pollination (insects, unlike humans, can see UV light, which guides them to nectar on flowers).
“It’s funny, it’s been around a long time,” said Dr. David McDaniel, a dermatologist who worked on the bee research. “I remember using it when we had to develop film to see the photos. It seems like now there is a new awareness or application of it.”
In the last decade photographers like Cara Phillips, who lives in Brooklyn, have used it for art. Wanting to capture strangers, Phillips set up a camera in Manhattan’s Union Square and at the Scope Art Show with signs that said “Free Portraits.” To date, she has taken over 400 of them, to tremendous response.
“Those portraits went viral three times, in 2010, 2011 and 2013,” she said. “At one point it seemed like every major newspaper in the world ran it.”
Now Phillips is frequently approached by amateur photographers seeking her advice, as well as brands like Neutrogena asking her to work for their ad campaigns. “There is only so much you can do to make your picture look interesting in today’s world where pictures are everywhere,” she said. “Some people want UV photography because they want to do something different.”
Walgreens is another of those brands. In early June the drugstore chain started displaying signage featuring UV photography along with instructions for proper sunscreen application. The campaign also included influencers posting UV portraits of themselves online and tagging Walgreens.
“It’s different than any other image you can get,” said Crystal Fouchard, a senior director of marketing for the company. “It’s the honesty behind it, everyone knows there is nothing hidden there.”
There was a slight hiccup in the plan when a few Instagram users commented on social media that the UV photographs looked like blackface (their comments have since been removed). “Once people understood that the images these influencers posted online were UV images, and the purpose and intent of the program, the small number of comments subsided,” Fouchard said.
Phillips believes one of the reasons UV photography has become popular is because it fits in with a larger movement of transparency. The no-makeup selfie has become a thing. So have celebrities chastising magazines for editing their photos too drastically. Meghan Markle likes to ensure pictures show her freckles, reportedly demanding that the women on the cover of the British Vogue issue she guest-edited display theirs as well.
Doctors don’t need UV photography for diagnostic purposes. “We are trained to pick up on subtle changes,” said Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a dermatologist with offices in Murray Hill. The pictures, she said, are “meant for dramatic effect. When I tell people they might get skin cancer, they don’t believe me. But when I say they might get wrinkles or spots, they listen.” When they see it, they listen even more.
Nazarian warns clients that while she can remove some of the damage they see, she can’t decrease their risk of skin cancer. She just tells them how to not put themselves at even more risk in the future.
“UV photography is like that show ‘Beyond Scared Straight,’” said Zinno, the television personality. “A lot of people see it and they are like, ‘Oh my God, I need to do better.’”