A fashion spread in the latest Vogue India, in which poor, nameless Indians sport $10,000 handbags and $100 bibs, has catalyzed a profound reaction in the press and blogosphere. What is the acceptability, many are asking, of employing such jarring images, un-ironically, for the sake of commerce?
From UK's Telegraph:
"The poor are always used as props, not as real people, which is why they haven't even been named in the magazine," said columnist Parsa Venkateshwar Rao. "Would they use homeless or hard up people in London for this kind of shoot?"
In The New York Times article which first brought widespread attention to the matter, Indian journalist Kanika Gahlaut is quoted:
There’s nothing “fun or funny" about putting a poor person in a mud hut in clothing designed by Alexander McQueen. “There are farmer suicides here, for God’s sake," she said, referring to thousands of Indian farmers who have killed themselves in the last decade because of debt.
To which Vogue India editor Priya Tanna rebuts:
"Lighten up...Vogue is about realizing the 'power of fashion' and the shoot was saying that “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful. You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously. We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world."
The online debate is mostly propelled by incredulity:
Sepia Mutiny's Anna questions the nature of aspirational consumption that marks India's current moment: "Giving impoverished people $10,000 bags, Burberry bumbershoots and Fendi bibs for their children reeks of an appalling level of arrogance, an utterly clueless infatuation with 'edginess', and a heartless disregard for those for whom India does not yet shine. Way to keep it classy, VI. Also, just so you know, the text on that picture says, 'Baby’s Day Out: It’s never too early to start living in style.'"
More outrage at Jossip...
"Generally, we'd applaud the use of non-models in a fashion book. But we usually reserve our "thanks for not using anorexic models" applause for those who don't substitute them with "skinny because of malnourishment" persons."
...while this photographer wants Vogue to encourage flood relief efforts in India:
"I’m watching images of people fighting to get into a rubber dinghy in Bihar. They’ve been stranded for a week with little in the way of shelter and barely enough food. The dinghy is dangerously over-loaded as people grapple to get off their shrinking island. There’s not a Burberry umbrella in sight."
However, Daniel Altman, on his blog, Managing Globalization, insists Vogue's spread should be tolerated, as it only reflects the growing pains of a nascent but healthy liberal democracy: "But India is a democracy, and you can’t simply tell people what to do with their money. Nor can you tell poor people what they should aspire to in life. Is a poor person somehow less deserving of a fancy handbag? Should they be prohibited from dreaming about the same luxuries as rich people enjoy?"
What do you think? Please post your comments below.
SAJAforum's recent coverage of the Indian media scene - consider it a must-read collection if you want to learn more about the media in India:
- JOBS: Salon looks at U.S. journos moving to India
- Tips for U.S. journalists going to South Asia for the first time
- HT launches a new women's section
- Murdoch to beef up India presence
- International magazines, Indian twist
- India's hot media market
- A look at new business dailies
- More on the business press
- James Mutti essay on India, democracy & the press
- Questions for Sevanti Ninan on monitoring South Asia's press
- Courting Dalits as readers
- Can journalism keep up with India's media explosion?
- One problem with Indian media
- News investors, turn to India (and ditch America)
- BOOKS: "Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting on South Asia"
- Times of India's new "Private Treaties"
- Raju Narisetti leaves WSJ to run a new biz daily in Delhi