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Stunning photos show why S. Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world

From "Beauty Recovery Room," by Ji Yeo

"As long as I can remember, I've wanted to be someone else," New York-based photographer Ji Yeo writes of her complicated relationship with plastic surgery.

Yeo is not the only one. The desire is multiplied by the millions in her native Seoul, often called the world’s capital for plastic surgery. In a new exhibition on display in New York, Yeo showcases photographs that document the experience of plastic surgery in South Korea, where 20 percent of women have had some form of cosmetic work, compared to 5 percent of American women, according to widely cited data from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.

(Jump to the photos of the patients)

In raw numbers, Brazil performed the most procedures overall in 2013, followed by the United States, but the plastic surgery industry in South Korea is legion. The New Yorker profiled it earlier this year, reporting that among the reasons for getting surgery on a questionnaire to prospective patients was "preparing for a job," "wedding" and "regaining self-confidence." Patricia Marx, the author of the story, theorized that it's not surprising that a country that had such a miraculous economic turnaround would embrace cosmetic surgery.

After the Korean War, the country’s G.D.P. per capita ($64) was less than that of Somalia, and its citizens lived under an oppressive regime. Today, South Korea has the fourteenth-highest G.D.P. in the world. Is it really surprising, then, that a country that had the resilience to make itself over so thoroughly is also the capital of cosmetic about-faces?

Of course, many places have remade themselves economically and are not plastic surgery capitals, but there's no denying the role plastic surgery plays in the country's economy. South Korea has more than 2,000 plastic surgeons. Its medical tourism industry tripled its revenue from 2009 through 2012, rising to $453 million, Bloomberg News has reported. Much of that boom in foreign business is coming from China, but also Japan, Taiwan, Russia and the Middle East, says Yeo, who has photographed not only the patients but the luxurious facilities.

One clinic, she says, has 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. Behind that luxury, however, are blood and gore that patients never see, but which she also photographed.

(Jump to the photos of the facilities)

Yeo once considered plastic surgery herself. She grew up in Gangnam, the nouveau-riche suburb parodied in Psy’s "Gangnam Style" that is the hub of the industry. She planned to transform her whole body, but when she started consultations with about a dozen doctors, she realized she had pictured plastic surgery in terms of the before and after, not the actual surgery in the middle.

“During the consultation, I realized that all along, I was only thinking of plastic surgery as some kind of magic tool," she says. "From the media, and from my friends, not many people were talking about how plastic surgery was surgery.

Yeo chose not to go through the procedure, but she’s continued to focus on the subject. Her photos are nuanced, showing both the ugly and beautiful aspects of plastic surgery, and revealing the whole journey, rather than just the end result.

In 2008, she began shooting a series of photographs called “Beauty Room Recovery,” intimate portraits of patients in that in-between period of recovery that isn’t often pictured, after the surgery but before the big reveal. These images are from that collection. In a new collection, photographs from which appear farther down this page, she exhibits what cosmetic surgery facilities look like.

Yeo’s new exhibition, titled “It Will Hurt A Little,” focuses on the clinic buildings themselves. Given the influx of business, Korean plastic surgery clinics have grown into huge operations. Yeo photographs one clinic that has 21 floors in the middle of the pricey Gangnam neighborhood:

In this huge scale, the plastic surgery industry almost resembles manufacturing, says Yeo. The process is swift and systematic: In many clinics, patients will never see a doctor. Patients discuss their surgery and pricing with a consultation manager. They are put to sleep before the doctor comes into the operating room, and they wake up long after he leaves.

And like the manufacturing industry, South Korea’s plastic surgery clinics pump out relatively standardized products. Many young women and men in Korea now look eerily similar -- something that reddit users commented on with the flock of similarly looking the Miss Korea 2013 contestants.

Yeo’s newest project, "Casting Call," looks at this trend, photographing young people who are popular on Facebook for their looks alone, as well as aspiring actresses, models and reporters.

Yeo says there are actually two main types of plastic surgery clients in Korea: They are those who go for a more natural look (which can also be very expensive), and then those who prefer a more artificial look that can’t be achieved without plastic surgery: large eyes, a large nose and a very small chin.

Most Korean clinics will give their consultation managers and receptionists surgical procedures, and these employees become like an advertisement for their brand. “You can kind of tell the styles [of the clinic and the doctors] by looking at the consultation manager or the receptionist,” says Yeo. "They tend to hire people who represent their style, and a lot of times the employees get discounts on their surgeries.”

Yeo’s photos capture a sharp contrast between these beautiful employees, the sterile operating spaces, luxurious VIP rooms, and then the shock of blood and gore, often hidden away in the employee-only room. The contrast speaks to a basic truth of plastic surgery itself – that a polished, beautiful exterior comes at a hidden cost of blood and pain.

Yeo says the employee-only room, which patients never see, reveals a lot about the clinic: “Some are extremely clean and organized. Others are extremely messy. You look in the fridge, there are needles and barbeque and ketchup and filler.”

The photographs aren’t a full-blown criticism of Korean culture, says Yeo, but rather meant to show her complex feelings on the topic. She herself has refused to have surgery, but she also has come to see the industry as part of her culture, and says she now feels more comfortable with it.

“It Will Hurt a Little” will be on display at Baxter CCNY until May 22.

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