While fashion has had long time connections with charity and advocacy work, it also has a history of rather brazenly exploiting sensitive subjects. Vogue‘s recent editorial featuring models with Hurricane Sandy’s first responders sounds like it could be a good idea—an homage to the regular Joes who performed feats of heroism. However, because of poor execution, a few of the pictures looked almost satirical, as if Saturday Night Live staged a faux-photo shoot designed to mock luxury fashion. The cover photo, which makes the critical first impression, features three models on a Coast Guard boat posing hyper dramatically like they are off to rescue some poor soul lost at sea. The boat’s captain (whom the photo is supposed to celebrate) is barely noticeable. In fashion editorials that use regular people, execution is key. It either comes off as a respectful homage or exploitative. According to critics of Vogue‘s recent work, it seems to be the latter.
But why would Vogue attempt to capitalize on a disaster? After all, its editorials are widely viewed and hailed, no matter what the topic. They don’t have to be gimmicky to attract readers, especially to its much lauded editorial photo spreads. I imagine the first responders receiving a phone call to participate in a celebratory photo shoot for Vogue—after days, weeks, and months of relentless and unglamorous work—probably responded enthusiastically.
Being a careful observer of culture can sometimes skew you into an angry cynic, waiting to pounce on each perceived slight. While this certainly doesn’t mean we should be bleating sheep willing to believe anything, I think it does mean ingesting culture with a shrewd generosity. It was Jesus, after all, who told us to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” And this admonition is certainly applicable to our cultural interactions.
While many of the Vogue editorial’s photos were a bit tasteless, the thought behind them was noble. The celebrated fashion magazine had very little to gain and lots to lose by featuring Hurricane Sandy’s first responders. Because of poor execution, deemed exploitative by those unwilling to consider an alternative, Vogue lost a lot.