Alma Haser’s photos have everything necessary to make a stunning portrait—fashionably dressed subjects, precise lighting, and perfect poses. But it all goes awry when you look at the face. Or what’s left of it.

In her series Cosmic Surgery, Haser transforms her subjects’ faces into a complex geometry of eyes, noses, and mouths. While it might look like Photoshop magic, she handcrafts each portrait. It’s a painstaking process of making the photo, cutting out the face, folding it like origami, and then making a photo of the finished image.

Haser was born in Germany, but spent most of her life in England. She studied photography at Nottingham Trent University, where she also developed an interest in origami. But it wasn’t until after graduating that Haser struck upon the idea of combining the two. “When I took self portraits, I would never want it to be the subject so would often cover or hide my face,” she says. “I was trying to find some more ways of doing this, and liked the idea of using masks. So it made sense to combine my love for origami and masks.”

She began by creating elaborate folded shapes and attaching them to her face. Interesting, yes, but not particularly easy or comfortable. After giving the problem some thought, it dawned on her that she might use the face within the photo to create the mask. She made the first portrait in Cosmic Surgery in 2012.

The title grew from Haser’s dyslexia, which caused her to mistake the word “cosmetic” for “cosmic.” The same visual confusion applies to the images—more than a dozen in all—which can be impossible to read at a glance. Even those close to the subjects occasionally do not recognize their loved ones in the photographs.

Haser in her studio.Haser in her studio.Alma Haser

As to the subjects, Haser photographs people who strike her fancy, be it a friend, a relative, or a stranger she meets on the street. She’s most interested in people with distinctive features and style. “I go for unusual looking people who have slightly oversized eyes, lips, noses—whatever I don’t have basically,” she jokes.

The real work begins after she photographs them in her studio near Hastings. Haser prints one large portrait and as many as 90 smaller images of the person’s face. Then she’ll spend hours meticulously folding the photos into complex shapes inspired in part by kusudama origami, a Japanese paper-folding technique. Once she’s got a shape she likes, Haser places it on the large portrait and photographs it. Depending on the complexity of the face, the process can take as long as 24 hours.

The final result playfully subverts traditional portraiture by combing multiple techniques to obscure and enhance the subject. And it was an excellent way of illustrating In a Perpetual Present, a WIRED feature about Susie McKinnon, who lacks the ability to remember her past—or imagine her future. Haser photographed three models to represent McKinnon throughout her life, each origami portrait growing more complex as she ages.

“The woman is there, and all the pieces are present,” Haser says, “but the faces are unrecognizable; as McKinnon can’t recognize the emotional experiences of her own life.”

Cosmic Surgery will be available as a photo book this July.

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Exquisite Origami … Made Out of Human Faces