How much time and effort goes into a good photograph? Ask a teenager today and they’ll give a more savvy answer than their parents ever could. This is the Facebook generation, after all, who were weaned on the flattering selfie and smartphones’ built-in editing tools. It’s fair to assume that these children know an airbrushing tool from an auto-enhance.
Nevertheless, Vogue magazine is “revealing” the (often literal) smoke and mirrors behind its own photography by sending out a video and lesson plan this week to secondary schools, in an education drive that details each stage of a fashion magazine photo shoot. Admittedly, this process goes further than the average profile picture. Makeup artists, photographers, stylists, models and creative directors are interviewed – just a handful of the 20 professionals who take three hours to craft one image. The message is hit home continually that the resultant picture bears very little relation to reality: so far, so obvious. And I’m sad to say that the whole thing leaves me very cold.
As far as British Vogue goes, it has a far better track record in both photography and editorial than its international counterparts. One astounding compilation of these tone-deaf moments, gathered by New York magazine, reminds us of the time Vogue Germany did “haute homeless chic”; Vogue Italy glamorised the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; French Vogue photographed model Lara Stone in blackface; Vogue India shot pictures of impoverished street people in mud huts holding babies with incongruous $100 Fendi bibs on; American Vogue ran a now-infamous 2011 profile which positioned Bashar al-Assad’s wife Asma as an inspirational figure (“the most magnetic of first ladies”).
In contrast, British Vogue’s editor, Alexandra Shulman, has been fairly prominent in the media during her editorship, most recently speaking out on size zero culture and publicly asking designers why the sample sizes that they send to her magazine are so impossibly small. She is the driving force behind this week’s educational initiative – and, ultimately, it is a massive disclaimer so that her magazine can keep on producing exactly what it has done all along. Shulman’s lesson plan asks that teachers tell students “only a very small percentage of the population have the natural build and appearance of a model”.
Perhaps it’s just me who sees something sinister about attempting to re-educate young people so that a business can continue pushing what they acknowledge to be a damaging agenda. But why exactly are we supposed to swallow that the problem was with the public’s perception all along? These magazines exist purely to dictate to their young audience, for a fee, what is beautiful, fashionable, desirable – and largely unattainable. Trying to tell us that their content shouldn’t change, but the attitudes of their disillusioned and apparently uneducated readership should, is depressing doublethink.
With its video and lesson plan, Vogue is conveniently shirking the blame for a poisonous culture by telling us all what we knew already. Teenage girls are adept at photo edits, but it doesn’t stop 77% of them describing themselves as ugly when confronted with digitally enhanced images of models and celebrities. It doesn’t stop half of three- to six-year-old girls worrying that they might be fat, as a British Journal of Psychology study suggested. It does little to reassure when we know that the amount of teenage girls skipping meals has trebled since 1986, and research from the Girl Guides reveals that half of 14- to 16-year-old girls cite “media influence” as their reason for dieting.
When I get depressed by the wallpaper of unrepresentative faces and bodies surrounding me, I refuse to believe that my perception is wrong rather than the industry that produces them. So forgive me if I don’t laud the British Vogue team as an innovator when it points its skinny lacquered nail at me and says: “It’s not us, it’s you.”
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