About two and a half years ago, Beth Beard approached her friend Blake Morrow, a Toronto-based photographer and digital artist, about shooting some “before” photos of her. She was about to undergo gastric bypass surgery and wanted to be able to compare her body before and after the procedure.
Morrow was immediately enamoured with the idea of portraits that combined two versions of the same woman.
“I love before-and-after stuff,” Morrow tells Yahoo Canada.
Both photographer and subject wanted to avoid depressingly stereotypical shots — Beard didn’t want your typical badly lit “before” shots compared with well-lit and well-edited “after” shots — but instead, wanted to focus on celebrating change.
Once Morrow suggested they use pop-culture-inspired characters to tell her transformation story, everything started to come together.
Two weeks before Beard’s surgery, Morrow got her in the studio and shot 12 “before” characters in their respective scenes.
“Basically Beth had to project interacting with this ‘after’ self, not knowing what the results would be,” Morrow says.
Morrow praises his subject, who is also a photographer, for her willingness to “go there.”
“Some of the images are not flattering,” he says. “In the ‘before,’ she has a lot of courage, letting us show this.”
He says that while his friendship with Beard was helpful in establishing complete trust on set, Beard “being someone who knows how to work a camera and is a photographer…helped a lot.”
“And because of her theatre background, she’s okay with people looking at her. She’s okay with being a subject. So she brought a lot to the shoot,” he says.
After Beard’s gastric bypass surgery, the friends then waited a whole two years before revisiting the scenarios.
“I would say it was both scary and motivating,” Beard tells Yahoo Canadaabout the pressure to look great in the “after” photos.
“I learned a lot about gastric bypass in the sense that maybe a decade ago I thought it was a quick fix, and had no idea,” Morrow admits, listing the significant lifestyle changes he witnessed in Beard after her surgery. “I have a lot of respect for it. I’m hoping that when people find out the gastric bypass part, they’re able to learn more about it somehow.“
After Beard lost 150 pounds, she was ready for her “after” shots.
“It wasn’t necessarily like, ‘You have to lose at least 150 pounds,’ it was more like, ‘When do you feel like your ‘after’ has arrived?’” Morrow says of determining the right time to get Beard in front of the camera again.
“When we were getting to the two-year mark, we were, like, ‘Okay, I think this is it. This feels like now is the time.’”
The concept worked — Morrow edited together Beard’s 12 “after” characters with their respective “befores” — and allowed for both Beard’s transformation and positive spirit to take centre stage.
Morrow named his final 12-image photo series “The Beth Project.”
“There’s an image of divas, where it’s ‘Diva Beth’: her and herself on-stage singing. And it’s cool because she’s a lovely attractive larger woman before, then there she is, this vivacious lady singing right beside her and it’s nice that it’s so celebratory,” Morrow says.
Morrow says his personal favourite is the prisoner and prison guard photo, in part because it was the first shot to be completely composited — “It’s so nice to know everything worked,” he says — and in part because of how it told Beard’s story.
“The contrast of her being large as a prisoner, in her own body, and right there she’s authoritative, she’s in control, she’s got the baton, suddenly she’s in control — it was such a cool way to do that.”
Morrow credits Beard with coming up with the photo that references the “Frida and Diego Rivera” wedding portrait, a favourite painting of hers.
“Frida was such a strong and vibrant spirit, all of her images are iconic and unique,” Beard writes.
Morrow asked Beard for a quote he could add to the photo — the original painting featured an engraving that summarized the scene — and Beard was quick to suggest the following from Lucy Maud Montgomery:
“I’m not a bit changed — not really. I’m only just pruned down and branched out. The real me — back here — is just the same.”
“I think that quote is true the heart of this journey for me,” Beard explains. “I’ve lost weight, but I haven’t lost who I am. It’s just given me more opportunities to be more me, if that makes sense. There were things I’d always wanted to do and try but my weight had gotten in my way, Now I feel like I have the freedom to pursue them more.”
Morrow tells Shine On that he’s proud of the final images — and of his friend’s incredible transformation.
“I think she’s really relatable in it,” he says. “She’s just a healthier version of herself. I find a lot of the time, in the ‘after’ images, because her spirit was really flowing out, you really see it in her. You see the positive energy right there on display. And even when she was happy in the ‘before’ photos — in a lot of them, she’s a positive character there, too — when we were doing the ‘after’ shoots, she was just so much more alive. More in her own element. It was really fascinating to see the change.”
Beard says she was “gobsmacked” and “astounded” by the final images.
“It’s one thing to have a picture in your head for so long, something completely other to see it as a reality. Even the difference from seeing them in an e-mail to seeing them in print on a wall has been so surreal,” she writes.
While Morrow used Photoshop to create the eye-catching images, both he and his subject insisted on no digital alterations to Beard’s body.
“We definitely threw in some Spanx and a corset here and there,” he admits, emphasizing, “The last thing I’d want to do is fake Beth and be like, ‘You can do it, too!’ ‘Look what Photoshop can do for you! It can crush your self worth!’”
“If I was to say something about the surgery it’s that you have to go into it knowing that it’s not a cure,” Beard says. “You have to be willing and ready to change your lifestyle completely. It’s a tool and it was the best way for me to jump-start that change but you still have to work to lose the weight and be diligent to keep it off. You have to work within the program if you want to have successful results.”
“The Beth Project” is on display at the Vistek Toronto Gallery for the entire month of May as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, the world’s largest photography event.
See more photos at Morrow’s website here.