A Filmmaker/Editor on Disease & Beauty

Nico Leunen

I've been incredibly blessed in my life to meet lots of interesting people from all sorts of backgrounds.  Some of the most unique among these people are artists, people I know who are making their livings by showing the rest of us beauty.  I decided recently, as I pondered how illness affects a physical appearance, that I would ask some of these people to write guest blogs for me on the topic.  I felt that if anyone could tell the true story of disease & beauty it would be them.  

During the time our family lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone (West Africa), we became very close friends with Vicky Leunen & Serge DeCoster, a wonderful couple from Belgium with two daughters.  In December of 2010, Vicky's parents & brother came to visit for the Christmas holiday & we had the pleasure of meeting them.  Vicky's brother, Nico Leunen, is a filmmaker/editor & one of the artists I have asked to write about his perspective on disease & beauty.  Here are his thoughts:
Let’s say for the sake of the argument that I’m not too crazy about illness meeting art. 
Patients suffering with cancer or HIV, war veterans missing body parts, etc., have often been portrayed for the sake of art, but seldom this illness is overcome by the beauty of the artwork.  All too often my voyeuristic tendencies are called for to be able to want to see this kind of art.  Most of the times the artist simply wants to make the misfortune more esthetic.  These artists are looking ‘at’ rather than looking ‘beyond’.
To see where I’m going to with this we first need to look a bit deeper into the mechanics of love versus beauty.  We fall in love "at first sight."  With beauty or with what we believe to be beautiful.  Usually it is merely a shell we fall in love with. A face and a body that strikes us.  By preference this shell is as close as possible to symmetrical and healthy.  If we’re lucky, the shell contains real beauty.  If we’re not so lucky, the person we fell in love with turns out to be a "bad choice" as we discover their personality.  The shell will loose most of it’s original appeal and the story’s over.  In this case our best bet is to stop it and start all over with someone else . . . You can never overcome the discovery of inner ugliness. 
As we all know our shell will change over time - through aging - we may not be surprised that the external beauty of our loved ones will decay for sure.  Unfortunately sometimes a harsh illness intervenes earlier.  One being the subject of a serious illness or accident shouldn’t worry about the decay of their shell when it comes to beauty.  Of course this decay may limit them in the things they may want to do, and that’s a pain . . . But if we are loved for the right reasons our true beauty will not decay.  On the contrary.  If you were lucky enough to fall in love with the inner beauty of a shell, you can overcome everything . . .
When I first met Dave and Angie in Sierra Leone, I noticed right away that they carry their inner beauty on the outside.  This is not uncommon but rare enough for me to be struck by it.  Don’t get me wrong. Both Dave and Angie have a nice shell.  They are beautiful people.  But more than that, they carry their essence outwardly.  If you fall in love with them at first sight, it’s because you can feel what they stand for, what they believe in and you can feel that these people are up for some good.
This is the essential appearance of beauty and real artists will try to portray this, regardless of illness, accident or death even.  Two of my favorite American photographers have worked in this field, Sally Mann and Nan Goldin.  Sally Mann has for the most part portrayed her own family (Immediate Family), her own aging husband (Proud Flesh), and even decaying dead bodies (What Remains).  Nan Goldin has put her main focus on close friends, mainly in a drugs using gay & transgender NYC community.  HIV & heroin all around.  Both Mann & Goldin have managed to portray beauty in illness and decay because they started from the inside.  They tried looking "beyond" and not so much "at."  They don’t portray the shell.  They portray the inner essence.  These photographers manage to show me their love for their subject and by doing this I can appreciate the subjects beauty without feeling a voyeur.
In December 2010 I made a picture of Angie and Dave, on a beach in Freetown.  I must admit that I’m kind of proud of this picture and in all humbleness I must say that it made me think of Sally Mann’s work.  It had nothing to do with illness but everything with trying to catch inner beauty rather than shell-beauty.  When Angie saw the picture she made a remark about her hair. Vanity excuses her from doing this - and I don’t mean this in a bad way.  Every person should have a certain degree of vanity. But for her and Dave it was difficult to see their own beauty in this picture. Of course.
So yes, I think Chloë Sevigny is a hottie, but I’m waiting for her to become really sick or old and see what a true artist can do.  Who knows.  All I know is that I would have no problem (eeuh humble) making a beautiful & true portrait of Dave and Angie when they’re all crooked and wrinkled, 40 years from now.  For richer, for poorer.  In sickness and in health.
Brussels, Belgium
October 2012
You can go to IMDb & search Nico's name to see a list of his impressive film work. 

Nico's photo of Dave & I, Sierra Leone Dec. 2010
Nan Goldin's work
Sally Mann's work

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