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The Red Lips Project seeks to empower subject, audience through unified symbolism

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Photo Courtesy of Aditi Kulkarni

The Red Lips Project, run by Aditi Kulkarni ’17, has been gaining attention across Swarthmore’s artistic spheres.

The project’s main premise is simple: to take pictures of women wearing red lipstick, and attach a quote of them saying what makes them feel powerful. Kulkarni leaves many of the technical decisions in the making of the portrait to the subject, and adds minimal edits.

“I really want them to be able to decide what their lighting decisions are, if they want a darker picture to represent themselves or if they want a bright, contrasting picture,” Kulkarni said. “I try to edit minimally and the only thing I would edit for at all would be, if it’s too dark to see the picture, [to] turn the exposure up a little bit.”

To Kulkarni, the project is about bringing out the individual strengths of each woman, which is why she values their creative input for the shots.

“I think they know themselves best and what represents them best,” she said.

The project found its roots in a lot of work Kulkarni did through high school, although it’s the first time her work is culminating in a long-term endeavor.

“I’ve done a lot of photography; I did that a lot in high school and then have continued it through college, but this is the first time I’ve done a project-based thing,” she said.

That said, her initial inspiration stemmed from a social media feud she witnessed.

“A$AP Rocky came out and made a statement that dark-skinned women shouldn’t wear red lipstick because it doesn’t look good on them,” she said. “That started a movement where a lot of women of color posted pictures of themselves wearing red lipstick. [It] inspired me because all the women who posted pictures looked so powerful and confident in themselves.”

The project really crystallized this summer, around the image that is so quintessential to its foundation.

Kulkarni said, “I’ve always been really fascinated by the imagery of red lips, and I think it’s a very powerful image. I initially just started playing around with that image in my photography this summer and I realized that I could use this to make a project out of it.”

Issues of race, which were so central to the initial inspiration for the project, are somewhat less essential to Kulkarni’s endeavor; however, this is out of a desire for total inclusivity.

“I think my goal is to address all women, and I don’t want to isolate anyone at all,” she said. “I do think that women of color have a very special space in feminist dialogue and tend to be underrepresented. I want them to have a voice in this project, just like everyone else.”

It is hard to tell, at first glance, whom the project is for: it seems gratuitous for all parties involved. In Kulkarni’s experience, both the subjects and the audience feel driven and empowered by the experience, whether through thinking about what empowers them or reading other people’s thoughts that invigorate them. This ambiguity is something that Kulkarni has picked up on, and which even extends to her own view.

“At the same time, it’s been really nice for me as well; I find it empowering for myself to hear everyone else’s responses, she said. “So I think the project has played a role in everyone’s viewing of it.”

But really, Kulkarni’s aim in her project is detached from herself. Through the freedom she allows subjects in the individual shots, and the imperative of reflecting their voice in every shot, it becomes clear that her goal is almost therapeutic and contagious, to help as many individuals as possible. She echoed this impression.

“My ambition is for women and men both to see the project and recognize that we’re all powerful individuals,” she said. “I don’t know the number of images it will take to get to that place but my goal is to make an impact on people in some way and I hope that I can do that.”

In this way, the growing size of the project is ideal, since outreach is Kulkarni’s aim. As much as she’s had to solicit in the early stages, she hopes this will change in the future. The project is, after all, about empowering those involved, something she’d hope people would seek out.

She said, “Right now it’s still a very new thing, so there’s not enough people that know about it that I don’t have to ask around and people will just automatically come to me, but it’s getting there. We’re building it up slowly.”

The project, at its core, is simple, which gives may explain its rapid rise to prominence within Swarthmore’s arts scene.

“I think mostly the underlying feeling was what makes women feel powerful, so I played around with the variations of that and settled on the very simple question that would elicit that response,” she said. Leaving us with a set of compelling individual portraits, of the driven women of this school.

The project can be found online at http://theredlipsproject.tumblr.com.

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