Fashion's penchant for glamorizing horrible things reached new lows this week. Mumbai fashion photographer Raj Shetye's latest series, entitled "The Wrong Turn," depicts a woman being harassed and groped on a bus, evoking the brutal 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi. The outrage from the public was immediate. Shetye later said that the photos weren't meant to glamorize rape, and boasted to BuzzFeed:
"The concept is my baby... And the aim is to create art that will gather some reaction in society."
On the reactions he received: "It makes me feel satisfied about my work - at least the work I did is so impactful that I'm able to shed some light on this. I don't feel happy, but it makes me feel satisfied. That whatever I've tried to communicate is being communicated."
Shetye's crass back-pedalling reeks of opportunism. He is part of a larger group of misguided photographers who believe that empty shock value is commendable and justifies the content of their work. High fashion photography can be an accelerant of many things: classism, sizeism, colorism, and sensationalism of violence. Fashion is always cannibalizing itself as it constantly attempts to define and sell the zeitgeist to consumers, and the trope of violence against women in fashion editorials is a common one. This is a depiction of violence that doesn't inform. It anesthetizes. Women's bodies are inserted here as a means to seem edgy, and though Shetye claims that his efforts were not commercially motivated, the shoot brought him the greatest publicity of his career. And there's a bigger class dynamic that seems to be operating here as well. The female model bears all the signifiers of an upper class woman. The photos are not only outrageous because of the allusion to the New Delhi rape, but also, more insidiously, because they incite classist attitudes about the sanctity of upper class womanhood. The men surrounding her reinscribe a stylized chic masculinity where aggression is cool and desirable.
Here's a further sampling of this kind of sensationalism:
Shetye's spread bears many of the hallmarks of the infamous 2007 gang rape advertisement from Dolce and Gabbana. The picture was banned in Italian publications and features a woman pinned and surrounded by a group of men. The Advertising Self-Discipline Institute (IAP) released a statement condemning the ad, stating that the woman is "immobilized and subjected to a man's will" and that the image evokes a "representation of abuse or the idea of violence towards her." The fashion industry resists interrogating its usage of rape culture and maintains its willingness to promote these sorts of representations. Clothes are a way to access a system of control, an illusion of power. Ads like this try to goad consumers into believing that social capital can be obtained through sexual violence and sartorial choices.
Just this past year there was a spread in Vogue Italia sensationalizing domestic violence, complete with bloodied and frightened women in haute couture looking like they stepped out of a Dario Argento film. The photos were accompanied by a laughable editorial piece that seemed to predict the critical onslaught that followed. After a summation of all the supposedly innovative things the magazine has done, the editor likened the photographs to a "radical" condemnation of violence and wanted survivors of domestic violence to know that Vogue Italia was on their side. It's solidarity! they insist. Never mind the disempowering placement of the women in the photos, or the fact that the fashion industry and the glossy rags that support it thrive on exploitation. Martha Rosler's famous 1982 reading of Vogue is a witty critique if you have a half-hour to kill. Sensationalizing something as heinous as rape contributes to rape culture. The token "visibility" that self-aggrandizing fashion photographers laud themselves for providing doesn't remedy the violence.
Jason Huettner is a Blogs Editor for Warscapes.
Image via The Huffington Post.