Oh the Outrage! Representing Poverty in India
I've not posted on the bankruptcy of fashion photography for some time. And I thought I might let the latest round of despicable behavior go without comment. Unfortunately, the situation is too egregious to skip over.
The most recent fracas has been generated by the August issue of Vogue (India) which subjected readers to a sixteen page photo spread depicting average Indians (the average income is $1.25 per day according to the World Bank) posing with this or that outrageously expensive fashion accessory.
The spread seems to have strained the bounds even of journalistic objectivity. In this story, carried in the Business section of The New York Times (and where you can find some examples of the Vogue spread) the reporter clearly has a difficult time suppressing her disbelief. And this report in The Independent makes the editor - Ms. Priya Tanna, pictured above - who commissioned and published the shoot seem especially obtuse. Her response to criticisms? According to press accounts she advised critics to "lighten up" in the course of fatuous attempts to rationalize her very poor judgment.
The problem, of course, is that Vogue India hardly is exceptional. When in The Guardian we are asked "Is This the Most Tasteless Fashion Shoot Ever?" I really am not sure how to make sense of the question. The columnist, Jess Cartner-Morley, offers this well-deserved, explicit condemnation while managing, of course, to partition the fact that she makes her own living reporting on the 'fashion beat,' thereby lending credibility and visibility to the industry whose 'excesses' she condemns. In the process Cartner-Morley recalls work by the porcine Steve Meisel about which I have posted here and here and here. And she calls attention too to the photo spread in the U.S. version of Vogue last spring that depicts Keira Knightly, among other things, cavorting with young Kenyan boys. At least this spread draped the ridiculously expensive fashions on the skinny white girl and not on the Africans.
Of course, by pointing out how Cartner-Morley is complicit in all this - and let's face it, the difference between the imagery she finds offensive and the general run of fashion and glamour and celebrity photography she regularly discusses is slight, at best   - I risk inviting the sort of shallow 'we are all complicit because everything-is-connected-to-everything' rationalization some defenders of Vogue India have trotted out.
But to say that because in global markets we all are connected and so decry as hypocrisy of those who criticize bad behavior misses the point. There is a difference between pushing sub-prime, ballooning mortgages on unsuspecting home buyers and writing standard 30 year fixed rate financing. So too, there is a difference between selling fashion accessories (although a $10,ooo handbag? please!*) and selling them on the backs of individuals sunk in dire poverty. Of course, Ms. Tanna is at pains to establish that the individuals in the photographs were paid, she declines to say how much. I doubt they received even a tiny fraction, say, of the sum Ms. Knightly made. Why?
Defenders of Vogue India ask resentfully if we critics are unaware that there are really poor people in India. That surely is jejune. Those who are oblivious in all this seem to be the Vogue editors (not just the obtuse Ms. Tanna, but those responsible for the other examples I note above too). The critics are aware that what is at issue is not simply material deprivation. Of course, there will always be inequality. We are not dim. But there need not be extreme material deprivation. Moreover, as crucially important as material well-being is, what is at stake here is humiliation and cruelty. The individuals in the photographs might not quite grasp the cruel, humiliating implications of the Vogue photographs (although I would not want to pre-judge that), but virtually every relatively well-off reader of Vogue surely should be able to do so. How condescending are these images? "Oh, look at the poor woman and child! How fortunate that the baby can wear that charming bib!" The consequences of so cavalierly displaying such attitudes in any society are immense. That the folks at Vogue, as well as many of their readers and sycophants, seem unable to grasp that fact is truly disturbing.
* Here is an idea. Designing in a situation where price apparently is no object is easy. The fashionistas ought to try designing attractive, decent clothing and so forth under some realistic price constraint. That might test their skills.