Here’s the thing about context—it is vital in terms of giving perspectives and arguments dimensions and meaning. In the case of this fashion spread by Norbert Baksa on the current refugee exodus from Syria, context reveals the insensitivity of view and vision. Featuring models styled like refugees yet improbably decked out in luxe wares, the spread has elicited many an arched eyebrow. Baksa insists that he is not glamorising the issue and is merely trying to provoke thought about it, but his fashion spread completely falls flat.
This calls to mind a spread that Steven Meisel produced for Vogue Italia that was inspired by the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Called Water & Oil, it features supermodel Kristen McMenamy as tragic yet glamorous variations of animal life in peril due to the environmental disaster. While both photographers contend that their work is art and that they were making pertinent expressions about the situation, they both just come off as opportunists who utilised disasters to show off their talents. Moreover, instead of creating important conversations and initiating calls to action, their works merely come across as bids to capitalise on an unfortunate situation and sell it as social commentary.
At the heart of these are the failure to read the gravity of the issues and their own medium accurately. Certainly, they have the right to express themselves through the medium of photography, but using fashion photography, with its innate associations to promoting fantasy, consumerism and luxury products trivialises and undermines the very pressing issues at hand. This is not to say that fashion photography cannot be used to make incisive social commentary, but to profit off the mere replication of a disaster’s imagery? It requires a bit more thought, surely.
Photograph from “Der Migrant” by Norbert Baksa from Dangerous Minds