A Lucky Human mannequin factory employee polishes a mannequin, in the booming southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Dec. 29, 2007. The factory produces around 25,000 mannequins a year, mainly for export to Europe and the United States.
A Lucky Human mannequin factory employee polishes a mannequin, in the booming southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. The factory produces around 25,000 mannequins a year, mainly for export to Europe and the United States.Oded Balilty—AP
A Lucky Human mannequin factory employee polishes a mannequin, in the booming southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Dec. 29, 2007. The factory produces around 25,000 mannequins a year, mainly for export to Europe and the United States.
A Lucky Human mannequin factory employee holds mannequins, in the booming southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007. The factory produces around 25,000 mannequins a year, mainly for export to Europe and the United States.
A Lucky Human mannequin factory employee polishes a mannequin, in the booming southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007. The factory produces around 25,000 mannequins a year, mainly for export to Europe and the United States.
Mannequins wait to be painted at the Goldsmith factory in New York Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. As Fashion Week gets underway in New York, rail thin models will still be on the runways, but when garments reach the stores, many of them will be displayed on mannequins that more realistically reflect the human form - and the shapes of customers shopping for clothes. Goldsmith also has a line of full-figured mannequins.
A Goldsmith employee polishes a mannequin at the Goldsmith factory in New York Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. As Fashion Week gets underway in New York, rail thin models will still be on the runways, but when garments reach the stores, many of them will be displayed on mannequins that more realistically reflect the human form - and the shapes of customers shopping for clothes. Goldsmith also has a line of full-figured mannequins.
A Goldsmith employee polishes a mannequin at the Goldsmith factory in New York Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. As Fashion Week gets underway in New York, rail thin models will still be on the runways, but when garments reach the stores, many of them will be displayed on mannequins that more realistically reflect the human form - and the shapes of customers shopping for clothes. Goldsmith also has a line of full-figured mannequins.
A Goldsmith employee carries mannequin heads at the Goldsmith factory in New York Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. As Fashion Week gets underway in New York, rail thin models will still be on the runways, but when garments reach the stores, many of them will be displayed on mannequins that more realistically reflect the human form - and the shapes of customers shopping for clothes. Goldsmith also has a line of full-figured mannequins.
A Lucky Human mannequin factory employee paints eyebrows on a mannequin in the booming southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007. The factory produces around 25,000 mannequins a year, mainly for export to Europe and the United States. Each one sells for about US$55.
Mannequins hands stored in a drawers at the Goldsmith factory in New York, Sept. 4, 2007.
A Goldsmith employee carries a mannequin at the Goldsmith factory in New York Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. As Fashion Week gets underway in New York, rail thin models will still be on the runways, but when garments reach the stores, many of them will be displayed on mannequins that more realistically reflect the human form - and the shapes of customers shopping for clothes. Goldsmith also has a line of full-figured mannequins.
A Goldsmith employee walks next to a line of mannequins at the Goldsmith factory in New York Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. As Fashion Week gets underway in New York, rail thin models will still be on the runways, but when garments reach the stores, many of them will be displayed on mannequins that more realistically reflect the human form - and the shapes of customers shopping for clothes. Goldsmith also has a line of full-figured mannequins.
A female mannequin is covered with plastic bag just before being shipped at the Goldsmith factory in New York Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007. As Fashion Week gets underway in New York, rail thin models will still be on the runways, but when garments reach the stores, many of them will be displayed on mannequins that more realistically reflect the human form - and the shapes of customers shopping for clothes. Goldsmith also has a line of full-figured mannequins.
A man speaks on a pay phone next to a clothing shop at a market in Beijing, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2007.
Mannequins and pedestrians are reflected in a clothing store window at the Fashion district during the Fashion Week in New York, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007.
A costume shop employee, dressed as batman, pulls a cart with a mannequin to advertise the shop, ahead of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. Israelis will mark Purim on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 remembering the Jews' salvation from genocide in ancient Persia, as recounted in the Scroll of Esther -- with the full text being read aloud twice during the celebration, in the evening and again the following morning.
A Chinese man walks by mannequins amongst the rubble of demolished shops in Beijing Saturday, May 3, 2008. Large swathes of the city are being demolished, to be replaced by modern commercial and residential complexes as the city modernizes in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Mannequins legs lie amongst the rubble of a demolished house next to a construction site in Beijing Tuesday, April 15, 2008. China's inflation eased slightly to 8.3 percent in March, while economic growth in the first quarter of the year slowed to a still-robust 10.6 percent, the government reported Wednesday. Consumer prices rose 8.3 percent in March compared with the same month last year, down slightly from February's 8.7 percent rate, the highest in nearly 12 years, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
A mannequin lies amongst the rubble of a demolished house in Beijing Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007. Large swathes of the city are being demolished, to be replaced by modern commercial and residential complexes as the city modernizes in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.
A man sleeps next to pieces of mannequins amongst the rubble of a demolished house in Beijing, Dec. 26, 2007.
A Lucky Human mannequin factory employee polishes a mannequin, in the booming southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. The fac
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Oded Balilty—AP
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See the Hidden Life of a Mannequin

Feb 10, 2016

Although the cameras are often pointed at world-class models flaunting cutting-edge fashion trends on the runway, it is the mannequins in pedestrian display windows—from Manhattan’s luxurious Fifth Avenue displays to Beijing’s small shop windows—with whom most consumers identify.

The mannequin: slim, chic, avant-garde. Ever fixed in position, the placid figures entice predisposed passerbys to fork up the remainder of last week's paycheck to redefine themselves with the season’s latest line. They are the objects of observation, the tools of commerce, the symbols of an ever shifting metropolitan modernity. But though lifeless, they are not immortal.

"After shooting and editing the photos, I saw a little bit of life in them," Oded Balilty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Israeli photographer, tells TIME. "They are not just a piece of fiberglass."

Bality's photographs take us behind the display window to the life of a mannequin: from birth in a factory to life behind the display window to their discarding and prosaic decay.

He first visited the Lucky Human Mannequin Factory in Shenzhen, China and Goldsmith in New York. In these large warehouses, arms hang from the ceiling beside dozens of plastic heads, fibreglass torsoes and cases of papier-mâché hands. Hundreds of dismembered mannequins are stacked in lines, waiting to be sanded, buffed, painted and polished by factory employees in safety masks. "I felt as if they were whispering to each other when I turned my back," Balilty says.

Each one sells for about US$55. A plastic bag covers each before they are shipped to department stores, boutiques or showrooms across the world. Some are primped and preened with outfits planned by fashionistas behind deadline-driven drawing tables, while others wait under the finicky eye of gray-haired shopkeepers. Balilty's photographs show how each has a spot in the limelight of passing shoppers: four mannequins line the street in Beijing, donning fancy fur coats; one is paraded in a cart in Tel Aviv, Israel, showing off a costume for Purim, an upcoming Jewish holiday; another gazes out the window of a clothing store in the New York Fashion district.

But fashion trends turn over rapidly and in time, so must its silent sellers. Most are heaped into a nearby junkyard or out the back door of a department store, where the paint on their once polished faces fades under the cracks and dirt of weather exposure.

More disconcerting than their demise was their impact on shoppers during their heyday, Balilty says. He found that stores ask the manufacturers for the same mannequin proportions: slim, tall, leggy and busty. "Like humans, they all start the same way but unlike real life, they are shaped the same, according to what society believes are the ideal proportions of the human body," he says. "It's wrong. Women are strong consumers and the fashion industry has brainwashed their minds, upholding one ideal of beauty, which is not even average—not even close."

Oded Balilty is an Associated Press photographer based in Tel Aviv. He photographs current events and documentary features for AP in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Rachel Lowry is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @rachelllowry.

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