The Red Lips Project


By Kyra Sagal      

Since September, Aditi Kulkarni, 19, at Swarthmore College, has been photographing women wearing red lipstick and asking them: What makes you feel powerful?

“As a photographer, I have always been fascinated by the imagery of red lips. To me, red symbolizes power; it is a sign of strength and courage” said Kulkarni.

Thus, a project known as Dark Skin Red Lips, created by Karyn Washington, where women of color posted pictures of themselves wearing red lipstick, began. Kulkarni said, “These pictures were just one way in which women were able to fight back the beauty norms and instead revel in their own ideals.” The Dark Skin Red Lips project inspired Kulkarni to create her own project, the Red Lips Project, over the summer.

One photo on the Facebook page features Osazenoriuwa Ebose, a senior at Swarthmore College, staring assertively into the camera. Accompanying the picture, her quote says “I wear my dignity; I share my love freely. I feel fear for the future, but I do not shy from it. I feel powerful because I know my worth and the worth of others around me. I feel powerful because I respect my past. I feel powerful because I am Osazenoriuwa Osamede Ebose; there is none other like me in the world.”Red Lips

Kulkarni’s project mirrors work being done by photographers/journalists around the country who are capturing the images and words of people they encounter to try to tell larger stories about their lives.

One of the first and most influential of these is Humans of New York (HONY). In 2010, Brandon Stanton created HONY, intending to photograph 10,000 individuals and eventually plot their location and photograph on a map. Then, Stanton began collecting quotes, and the blog became something different. He says on his website, “With over eight million followers on social media, HONY now provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City.”

Yasmin Gentry, a journalist for The Quad at BostonUniversity, said, “Since HONY’s birth in the summer of 2010, Stanton has inspired others to take his lead. Photographers capture citizens in cities like Tehran, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Boston, Toronto, and Oslo.”

Just like HONY, Kuljkarni’s project is beginning to spread to other cities. Her Campus at American University, an online magazine, held a Red Lips Project event on campus November 11 after finding Kulkarni’s blog online. After reaching out to Kulkarni and expressing interest in holding an event, Her Campus asked students to wear red lipstick and “tell us what makes you feel powerful.” According to Kulkarni, the event was successful.

Alex Sanyal, 19, was one of the first subjects of Kulkarni’s photos. She said, “The Red Lips project is an inspiration, as are Aditi and Madeline – the faces behind it. They are inspiring girls across campuses all over the northeast to empower themselves and to appreciate themselves.”

The Red Lips Project is a movement of female empowerment, and it is only one of many projects focusing on people and their lives in the photos. Many photographers have been inspired by the “Humans of” projects, which photograph people in a specific area or community reveal the diverse and unique perspectives of individuals.

Projects such as HONY and the red Lips Project not only allow viewers to learn about the person in the photo, but also to connect with them via the quotes attached.

Teresa Wang, 20, photographs people. She said “how people pose in front of me tells me a lot about how they feel at the moment and towards me.” Alex Sanyal agreed after her photo shoot with Kulkarni.

She adds, “As a survivor of an eating disorder and years of low self-esteem, this project really spoke to me and helped me cope with feelings that I had oppressed or forgotten about. It was a powerful, beautiful, and very easy way to heal.” In her photograph, Sanyal emphasizes the depth of her eyes, and her quote speaks to the power of them.

While Kulkarni believes that she captures what the people want to express in their photograph, Holden Blanco, a sophomore and photographer at Haverford College, has a different approach. He said, “Every photograph has more to it because people themselves have so much depth. It’s up to me to capture the right moment to describe which layer they’re projecting.” Blanco does not include quotes next to his photographs. He depends on the photo itself to express the feelings of the individual.

Kulkarni said that her project has a similar concept to HONY’s that is “simple and beautiful,” while the Red Lips Project is founded with more specific intentions. She said “HONY showcases the varied personalities that exist in New York City.” But Kulkarni wants to do something more: she wants to empower women.

She has submitted a story idea to Buzzfeed, a website based on social news and entertainment with the hopes of making the project bigger. Based on the attention and the 807 “likes” on the Facebook page, the expansion of the project seems very likely.

USA Today has already contacted Kulkarni in hopes of doing a feature story on her project. Many viewers have also contacted her to express their reactions to the mission statement.

“I’ve gotten emails from women in Hong Kong,” Kulkarni said. She said the project meant a lot to them because they “face a lot of gender oppression,” something Kulkarni was not fully aware of before reading the emails.

Alex Sanyal said, “The project is going to go big. I just know it, and I feel honored to be part of the start.”