Sunday, May 18, 2008

"From Here to Timbuktu"

I think I've touched on why fashion shoots in "exotic" (read non-Western) locals tend to get under my skin. The main issue for me is the tendency for the photographer to use whatever local is handy as a prop and/or or exploit the model's own ethnicity if she happens to be non-White. I've lost count of how many times I've seen British/Jamaican Naomi Campbell dressed as an African villager on the pages of Elle and Vogue.

This kind of shoot is always lazy and sometimes just plain offensive to me but it is a fashion industry staple, just like pictures of models jumping in expensive clothes in American Vogue.

But would the images be as potentially offensive if instead of a white model, a black one was used? Turns out the answer is "sorta" thanks to Vogue's "From Here to Timbuktu" shoot photographed by Mikael Jansson for their June 2008 issue.

Here are the good things. The photographs are beautiful as is the African* model, Liya Kebede. Okay so she's not from Mali but they get points for not trying to dress her in traditional garments right? Unlike many of the models usually used in these themed spreads, Kebede looks genuinely happy to be in Timbuktu in these vibrant photographs that could conceivable come from someone's own scrapbook if the person in question was extremely fabulous. There is only one photo of the model in a actual safari jacket (this one priced at $385 by DVF if you are interested.) No spread like this is complete without a safari jacket, is it?

What really got my attention with this pictorial was the travel diary, written by Sally Singer, which accompanied it. Singer, who describes Timbuktu as a "sandbox at the end of the Earth" that feels to her like the "most priviledged of all playgrounds." Her tone does in words what wasn't quite captured in the photographs, that this country exists solely for the amusement of Westerners that can afford to travel there, it is a playground full of interesting children who are just dying to take one's perfectly manicured hand and show you around the place. One major difference is that thanks to designers like Oscar de la Renta who has "expertly crafted" mudcloth into his Spring '08 collection, everyone wearing the traditional textile in Mali looks like they've "stepped off the Dries Van Noten catwalk." She even takes calling her local guide Oscar as an homage to the designerr because of the tabard mudcloth garment he is wearing. There's no mention of what his real name is.

I must say that I agree with her , it is a relief to take pictures of locals and not have their outfits clash with yours. For example, my husband and I were in Paris last month and I had to spend countless hours on Photoshop editing out all those unsightly natives wearing last season's Agnes B. Quel horreur!

photo source: Faith Akiyama/TFS

*I say African here rather than Ethiopian here intentionally. Even though Liya's East African features stand out in the crowds of Malians surrounding her, in Vogue's view one black person (or African person) is just the same as another.


Chike-Ikechi said...

Nice critique! Haven't picked up this issue of Vogue yet, but you've made me want to read into Ms. Singer's diary. Funny you speak about the stereotype themes that pop up in these "exotic" shoots because GQ just did a shoot in Asia and what you wrote about locals acting as props came to mind instantly...

Lashell said...

What I love about these pictures is that she looks like she is just someone having a good time on vacation instead of a traditional photo shoot

Anonymous said...

What is so troubling for me about these images, regardless of the ethnicity of the model, or models, is the use of people of color as props and decoration, mere backdrop for the clothing. Are these people paid or otherwise compensated for "modeling" for these images, or are they all just toys in the "playground?"