ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When photographer Wes Naman invited friends to pose for a series of what was meant to be goofy portraits, neither he nor his models had any idea the images would end up reaching millions of people across the globe.
But the so-called "Scotch Tape Series" was a game-changer for the artist whose first love was creative writing.
A while back he realized people are more likely to look at a single image, like a painting, than they are to sit down and read an entire book or essay. So he shifted his storytelling palette and began taking pictures.
"I think I was able to apply my sort of weird narrative brain to photographs and be able to try and tell a story within one single frame," Naman said.
He makes a decent living shooting commercially and when time allows the photographer dives into various creative projects for himself. The concept behind the series that catapulted him into a kind of peculiar fame was to invite friends into his studio, use invisible tape to manipulate their faces and then photograph it.
"You could pull the jowls out and spread the eyeball even wider and then bend the lips down," he said, laughing. "There was a lot of drooling going on here because it’s hard to keep your saliva in your mouth."
The way the transparent tape causes face flesh to protrude gives the images a strange three-dimensional quality and for the most part, people's expressions are frozen in these looks of astonishment.
"They do their poses and then at the end I would try and have them remove the tape with only their facial muscles," Naman says, describing the process. "That way you get these really distorted chins and eyeballs moving around because they are trying to stretch the tape off with just their face."
Perhaps one of the best known of Naman’s photographs is the one of Rebekah Wiggins, a local actress. For the shoot she arrived at his studio with a well-formed idea of what she wanted to do.
"My outfit was a giant 1930s raccoon fur coat and tons of vintage jewelry," Wiggins said. "My idea was like a socialite who's continually trying to fit in until they kind of turn themselves into a monster."
When you look at the image Naman shot of the actress, half her lip is taped all the way to the side of her smashed nose. She's got this creepy, wide-eyed smile, with one eye taped almost completely shut, the other eerily gawking at the viewer.
"It's kind of a sad image when I think about what it meant to me," she said. "Like every human, I struggle with major physical insecurities and it’s just a statement on how in trying to fit in, we end up bastardizing natural beauty. Maybe that's why it spoke to some people. Especially women."
Naman’s work reached a wider audience when, while out on a local shoot photographing a "Breaking Bad" Walter White look-alike contest, he told another photographer from Wired magazine about the Scotch Tape Series.
As a result Naman ended up photographing some of their staff, and a layout of his work, including Wiggins' photo, was published in the magazine. After that, media outlets like the New York Daily News and the Huffington Post came calling to use the images.
Wiggins got word from her baby sister.
"She was like, 'you are on BuzzFeed today' and I was like 'what?,'" she said, still in shock. "Yeah and it just blew up. It was crazy."
"Two days later I've got maybe a hundred emails from China, Iran, Russia, Norway, Dubai, rolling in and rolling in," Naman said. "It kept going for months and months and months."
The project went viral, spreading to every continent. Wiggins' image was blown up ten feet tall and hung on a lamppost at an art fair in Germany.
"I just was blown away I was like, 'oh my god this is getting beyond my control, my power, I don't even know how this is happening anymore,'" Naman said. "Reaching a mass audience on such a massive scale with your artwork ... I can cross that off my bucket list now."
Recently Naman got a mystery check in the mail and he had no idea what the money was for. It turns out it was from the Ripley's company, of Ripley's- Believe It or Not! Wiggins' image, along with a few other Scotch Tape Series photographs, were published in their "Dare To Look" book, the annual penultimate collection of weird.
"People like to be in Ripley's," said Edward Meyer, vice president of Ripley's exhibits and archives. "That's a feather in their cap. That is high recognition to most people. And the photos are funny! I think you're gonna have a gut reaction to them that this is pretty strange, what the heck is wrong with this. The lady with her lip coiled up makes me giggle."
The book is printed in 17 languages and distributed across the globe.
Naman is already on to his next creative project, shooting portraits of people dressed in the oh-so-flattering, tightie-whities.