Seoul’s Gangnam district is famous for two things: its role as Psy’s muse for the viral Gangam Style video, and its reputation as a plastic surgery mecca. With 400-500 clinics in the area alone, it comes as no surprise that Korea is the leader in cosmetic surgeries worldwide, with 20% of women and 15% of men going under the knife, and boasting a $453 million medical tourism industry. In a culture where you often have to attach a headshot to a job resume and pop idols look like anime princesses, it is easy to see how surgery is in high demand.
Ji Yeo, a New York-based Korean photographer, is exposing the many facets of the industry through her work. Her 2008 project entitled “Beauty Recovery Room” shows women recovering from plastic surgery, as we often focus on the before and after, but not what happens in between. “During the consultation, I realized that all along, I was only thinking of plastic surgery as some kind of magic tool,” Yeo tells the Washington Post of her own experience with surgery. “From the media, and from my friends, not many people were talking about how plastic surgery was surgery.”
Her newest project is called “It Will Hurt a Little”, and focuses on the clinics themselves. South Korean plastic surgery facilities have grown into massive operations—it is not uncommon to have 300 employees, 30 doctors, 12 operating rooms, 40 post-operating rooms, 70 consulting rooms, a dermatology salon, a spa, dental care, a café, and a library in one facility. The series is based on contradictions; she photographs luxurious facilities and beautiful employees, sharply juxtaposed with the gore of medical waste and blood.
Yeo is not anti plastic surgery, but instead uses photography to express her complex feeling on the matter. The photos speak to this, showing the procedures as both something beautiful and aspirational, while revealing the darkness that underlies them. While cosmetic surgery is a personal choice, Yeo’s photos are a commentary on the dark side of a culture that is obsessed with appearances.
To read more about the photos and Korea’s surgery addiction, head to washingtonpost.com
Photo: Ji Yeo via her website