When the Turkish photography artist Eylül Aslan was browsing Tinder from a friend's account last year, she became fascinated.
“We were looking at profiles of both girls and boys, and I noticed this pattern of people choosing pictures of what they thought was their most appealing part,” she says in her apartment in Berlin, where she also shoots much of her work. “So girls with nice boobs were taking selfies with the camera held up high so that you could see their cleavage. And I realized: 'Wow, this is really how people think'.”
Best known for the playful and sensual explorations of femininity she posts on her popular Tumblr and Flickr accounts, Eylül has long been interested in the pressure that societies exert on people to appear and behave in a certain way. She first began taking photographs when she was a student in her native Istanbul, posing for self-portraits at home in the colorful and revealing clothes she didn't feel able to wear outside the house.
The fascination with image and self-image that drew her to people's carefully curated Tinder profiles has eventually led to her new book, Trompe L'oeil. The project is based on encounters with 20 men whom she met up with after matching on Tinder, and asked: what do you think are your most and least attractive body parts? Half of the pictures in Trompe L'oeil are studies of those wrinkles, eyes, smiles, leg and backs. The other half are self-portraits of Eylül herself, documenting the answers she received when she asked the same men – at their first meeting – “what do you find most and least attractive about me?”
When you went on Tinder, dıd you know that you would produce a book from it?
In the beginning, I didn't have a photo project in mind at all. I was just very curious, and trying to experience how I would use Tinder. I chose pictures where I thought I looked attractive and would attract singles – I have parts I would choose to show, and parts I would choose not to show. I was thinking about this over a few months. But I didn't have an active profile at this time. I created it, deleted it, played around a bit...
Then I thought 'OK, so what does beauty mean to me, to other people? Does it even exist at all?' I had these questions in mind and, when I started asking these questions, I started thinking more about a book. I created a profile with an actual aim and wrote very specifically that I'm a photographer and on Tinder for a certain project, not for dating. If people are interested they could swipe right and I would tell them more.
Were any of the men surprised to find themselves in an art project, not a date?
In the very beginning I didn't write that this what I was there for. I just wanted to see how people would react. So I did meet one guy without telling him it was for a project. He thought it was a date and got really upset with me. I came out with it after 30 minutes of our meeting. He just walked away, like: “This is not cool!” So, that was kind of awkward.
After that, I put all the details on the profile. There were still some guys who said “Actually, I just wanted to have a date with you.” I had to tell them that wasn't an option.
Most of the men were super interested and very friendly. Some of them have become good friends since. Others were visiting Berlin, so I guess it was part of their adventure while they were here. Some people already knew who I was. I think that was nice for them.
You don't normally shoot men. How was that?
It was very different shooting men. I do find some girls attractive, and if I'm taking their photo there can be a tension or something. But then again, its so common to use women as models, it seems more natural. But with men, its a bit different. For me it was a new experience.
Of course, because it was people from a dating app, while I was taking the photos I knew on a very conscious level that the models found me attractive. They mostly knew in advance that it was for a photo project, but I'm pretty sure that they were also interested in me.
I was also choosing people that I thought were attractive, or at least interesting. I guess it was quite sexy to have that experience. You know that person likes you, and you like them, but you're there for something else. So it was exciting, sexually and artistically.
Why did you also want to turn the camera on yourself?
I was really putting them in an intimate position by asking what they do and don't love about themselves. So I thought I should include myself to be fair.
Of course, it wasn't easy to meet a complete stranger and ask 'So, what do you hate about me', then do a little twirl and have them look at everything. I had to show my goods, I guess. But I think my openness and willingness to expose myself in my photography comes from who I am as a person. It's not a calculated thing, it just comes naturally. I like the fact that people can see me for who I am.
I started making my art to release my anxieties, to understand who I am, and to be myself; to explore who I am as a person. My concern was never to become famous, to make money or please others. For me, taking photos is just a journey of understanding and of talking to myself. That's why I do it, and hopefully I'll always do it for that purpose.
Most of the shots are taken very close-up. Why is that?
The closeness was partly a way to keep the models anonymous. I also wanted to objectify the body parts as just that, and to show what it's like to be really close up to someone.
It's interesting to me that on Tinder you see someone on a small screen, then you chat for a while, then when you meet in reality that small picture becomes this huge person in real life! It's a whole different experience. Then, all of a sudden, if you both like each other, you can be so intimate. You're looking at their belly button or their eyes... You actually get close to someone. So I'm glad that's how the photos ended up being.
Is it a critique of online dating culture?
I am a bit critical about how online dating works, but that's not really what I am so concerned with. For me, its more about self acceptance and self love. As horrible a cliché as it sounds, you really need to love yourself to be able to love others. Not just in a spiritual way, but physically. I think the more problems you have with your self and your body image, the more you are jealous, or critical of what others have and don't have.
I think this also comes from how I grew up and how my society works. Turkish society is quite judgmental and very brutal in that way. When I bought my wedding dress in Turkey the store assistant told me I was lucky I'd found someone who would marry me. She said, "you basically don't have any breasts." She thought she was being friendly! I grew up hearing that my boobs are small, and that kind of thing. It isn't so helpful when you're growing up and trying to understand who you are.
What did you take away from this project?
Honestly – and this isn't just bullshit – I really feel more at ease with myself and how I look. I wear less make-up and I don't really care if you can see my double chin in a picture, because it's mine and it's there. There's nothing to do other than accept it and embrace whatever I have.
That was the biggest lesson for me. The project was always proving me wrong. When I first started I thought everyone would say "Oh, I don't like your double chin! Why are you even asking?" but it doesn't turn out like that. There were guys who thought that my chin was actually quite cute.
People paid attention to really weird details, like my ears. No two people look at you the same way. When you look at the pictures, there are not so many answers in common. All 20 men were saying different answers about the same girl. For me it proves that what people find ugly or beautiful is very subjective.
Before the project, I hated my chin and the dark circles around my eyes. I liked my lips and mouth – they're not symmetrical and quite tiny. And my coloring in my skin and hair. I like my skin. But I can't see them as beautiful or ugly any more. I discovered how I feel truly about myself without listening to other people.
Speaking of Tinder, here's how to tell if you're being ghosted.