Water & Oil: Social Commentary or Tasteless Fashion?

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For the last week, I’ve been struggling with the decision whether or not to post this photoshoot.  Many of you may have already seen it.  Those that haven’t will likely be surprised by it.  It is meant to be provocative.  Controversial.  Striking.  Powerful.  But my question to you is: is it also in extremely poor taste?

Photographer Steven Meisel often references social issues within his photoshoots, so it is no surprise that he is the mastermind behind “Water & Oil.”  The shoot, which is the cover story of the current issue of Vogue Italia, is meant to be an editorial on April’s tragic Deepwater Horizon explosion and the resulting environmental catastrophe.  It is meant to raise awareness.  As the cover story, it is also a vehicle to increase sales.  And we all know controversy = increased sales.

Model Kristen McMenamy is the star of the shoot and represents the injured, oil-slicked birds that are among the innocent victims of the BP oil spill.  Honestly, a part of me sees the artistry in these images.  Meisel does an incredible job in interpreting the sadness, loss, and devastation caused by the spill.  The images are haunting, and yet because of their very nature (that of a fashion shoot) there is something beautiful about them.  Yet a larger part of me is sickened by them.

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I am sickened by the idea that someone can create beauty out of this tragedy.  Make no mistake – at its core this is a fashion shoot.  It may be a fashion shoot WITH a message, but it’s still a fashion shoot.  If it wasn’t, the model wouldn’t be wearing high-fashion pieces.  She could be naked.  She could be in her underwear.  Instead, it has been reported that thousands of dollars worth of clothing were intentionally ruined for the shoot.

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And the caption below goes along with the story (at least on Vogue Italia’s website):

“Kristen McMenamy in the “survivor” version, where she interprets in images the environmental drama that’s afflicting the Gulf of Mexico. She keeps her skin golden thanks to Self Tan Face Bronzing Gel Tint (to wear alone or with foundation): it takes care of the skin, while giving it a hint of color. Carbon, anthracite, and all of the earthy shades “dress” her eyes: Quick Eyes Cream Shadow, cocoa shimmer, a long-lasting cream eye shadow, worn with brown High Impact Mascara, and her lips feature a nude look. All by Clinique. Tulle dress with beaded embroidery, Ralph Lauren Collection. Rubber necklace, My Sister’s Art. Hair by Orlando Pita for Orlo Salon. Make-up Pat McGrath. Fashion editor Karl Templer. Set design by Mary Howard.”
So yes, add product placement, commercialism, and wastefulness to the issues I have with it.

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Then there is the message that Meisel, and Vogue Italia, are trying to convey.  The images are poignant and intense.  They make you want to reach out and help the model, the same way you want to reach out and help the real victims of the spill.  Yet there is no call to action for the reader.  You are just left there- feeling devastated.  With no way to help.

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It seems to me that without that call to action, all Meisel is really doing here is glamorizing the aesthetic of tragedy.   This tragedy:

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If nothing else, the controversy surrounding “Water & Oil”  will get people talking.  So – what are your thoughts?

Update: Follow-up post here.

All images courtesy of Vogue Italia and boston.com

{ 18 comments… add one }

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  • Stella July 1, 2011, 8:49 AM

    Found your blog through the IFB Weekly links…started browsing around…great stuff! Love the post that got linked to IFB this week, but this one really struck me. I’ve been tired of Vogue for a while now, but this and the whole Isla Bonita thing with Bruno Mars (coupled with the whole, oh this is a cheap buy! and it’s 300 dollars) have done it for me.

    Keep up the great blogging!

    Reply
  • Cate Young January 1, 2011, 9:34 PM

    when i first saw this editorial, i wasn’t as offended as everyone else seemed to be and i thought that made me a bad person. the thing is, i’m a strong believer in context, and i think that in the context of a fashion shoot, this is appropriate. i’m not saying it isn’t a ploy to increase sales, because that would be a lie. but i don’t think that it’s the kind of thing that needs to be considered a controversy. i think it’s amazing that meisel is able to create art out of tragedy. i do however agree with your point about a call to action:

    “Then there is the message that Meisel, and Vogue Italia, are trying to convey. The images are poignant and intense. They make you want to reach out and help the model, the same way you want to reach out and help the real victims of the spill. Yet there is no call to action for the reader. You are just left there- feeling devastated. With no way to help.”

    i actually felt exactly like this after i saw the images. like i couldn’t do anything to help. but i think that in the end that was an editorial mistake not an artistic one. i think that a lot of ‘controversy’ could have been avoided by including information about how to get involved with rescue efforts and donations to help the agencies involved. i think that that was the essential information that was missing, and now that i think about it, it was almost negligence that something like that was not considered.

    Reply
  • Guest August 24, 2010, 2:20 PM

    I completely agree with you-the shoot was very poor taste! Like you said, if it had been part of a benefit to HELP wildlife and people affected by the disaster that would be one thing, but that is not the case. It is just a disgusting man trying to capitalize off of a terrible tragedy!

    Reply
  • Annija August 21, 2010, 2:16 PM

    I wanted to comment on this post, but I decided I better do a blog entry of my own. So here's my humble views on the issue: http://restrictedcode.onsugar.com/Water-Oil-controversy-10385463

    Reply
  • PolytheneLucy August 18, 2010, 3:45 AM

    Thank you thank you thank you.

    I'm saddened by the fact that so many fashion-loving people don't see how this photoshoot glamorizes the issue rather than raise awareness on the actual living beings (including people) being affected by the spill. I agree with many that these photos turned out beautiful but the issue is not pretty at all. If these magazines wanted to convey a message that's beneficial to the affected, they should've asked for readers to support relief efforts (Refinery29 did! http://www.refinery29.com/5-useful-ways-to-support-the-gulf-oil-spill-relief.php).

    Reply
  • Fiamma August 16, 2010, 1:50 PM

    Well…. You are right about the session… but the bigger part of me things it's genius. This is a way to convey the message to more and more people. and obviously it's not just about the beauty. If the model was naked or in underwear people would be saying that it's sexual… The way the photographer captured the sadness and tragedy is amazing. Yes. It is controversial but isn't it all controversial? every aspect of our lives has two sides and we live in a commercialized society so if this is the way to remind the people we have to take care of the nature then let it be.

    XoXo
    Fiamma

    http://fashion-thrill.blogspot.com/

    Reply
  • Beautifully Invisible August 13, 2010, 10:59 PM

    Yet I've seen many articles talking about the beauty and glamour in these shots….

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  • Beautifully Invisible August 13, 2010, 10:58 PM

    It definitely gets people talking. I just feel very strongly that they didn't do enough. Vogue can reach and influence a very large audience, and this just falls flat to me.

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  • Beautifully Invisible August 13, 2010, 10:56 PM

    Agreed.

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  • Beautifully Invisible August 13, 2010, 10:56 PM

    I am so excited that all of our blogs on this subject got people talking. Thank you – again – for linking to mine. It's just such a shame that they didn't do more. The potential was there, they just didn't know what to do with it. It's like an empty shell.

    Reply
  • Beautifully Invisible August 13, 2010, 10:55 PM

    Thank you! I can definitely understand the opposite viewpoint. I think there was a lot of potential here, I just don't think they did enough.

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  • Beautifully Invisible August 13, 2010, 10:54 PM

    Thanks Leia!

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  • Leia August 8, 2010, 12:02 PM

    Completely agree with you on ALL your points – I was just discussing this with my mum but couldn't state my opinions NEARLY as clear as you have. Excellent article!

    Reply
  • arushifromfabblab August 8, 2010, 12:02 PM

    I actually agree with thelayeredpancake and Alecca. I just posted about it as well and I think we may have conflicting opinions but your post is amazing and I think you made some great points.

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  • Grit and Glamour August 7, 2010, 11:34 PM

    WOW…incredible points you made here. I'm with you totally. In theory, I get Meisel's point. In reality, the waste and vanity incorporated by this shoot are disgusting. If they were trying to raise awareness, why didn't they include contact details for rescue or humanitarian organizations on every page? Do we REALLY FREAKIN' CARE what they used on the model in this shoot?

    Amazing points, the more I think about it. You're my hero.

    Reply
  • lizzypunch August 7, 2010, 9:55 PM

    I think the only problem is that they didn't have any information about what was actually going on and what a reader could do about it. If they would have done that this could have been a lot more powerful.

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  • Alecca Rox August 7, 2010, 9:35 PM

    i think the whole editorial is a call for action, it is so ugly and scary, almost as if it's saying 'how would you feel'? readers are so used to pretty images, i cannot imagine anyone thinking glamour at this sight…

    Reply
  • Thelayeredpancake August 7, 2010, 7:41 PM

    hmmm….i read about this cover shoot. poor taste? possibly, but it keeps this important issue alive in the minds of people, which is never a bad thing.

    Reply