Is This Photo Racist?

AKIE BERMISS: Shock value — that’s all it comes down to.  I don’t know anything about fashion or photography, but I do know about shock value.  I do know about the social mores of the 20th and 21st centuries in America.  I do know about the objectification of women and the theoretical hyper-masculinity of the black man.  How one is the embodiment of purity, innocence, and beauty and the other is the paradigm of savagery, carnality, and evil.  And that even when that innocence or purity is somewhat sarcastic (or, over the top, if you will) and even when that beauty is not really all that beautiful, and even when the savagery and the evil are meant to seem dangerously seductive — I know that the basic morality play is the same.  This (good) versus that (bad).  And who can resist so compelling a dichotomy?

Daria Werbowy’s recent photos are a clear intent to play off of that dichotomy.  And it works.  The pale-skinned Canadian model is surrounded in each photo by black-skinned men with expressions of extreme apathy.  And black-skinned women who seem to care even less.  In each photo, the main subject is Werbowy and she is usually being grabbed, groped, or grasped in some faintly violent and overtly sexual way.  By black men who have the posture of attackers, aggressors, or possessors, even, but the faces of completely disinterested young people.  The truly look bored.  As I said, I don’t know anything about fashion or photography (and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what the hell these photos are supposed to be for.. .art? …marketing? … abstinence?) so I can’t explain why the faces are so bizarre, but I know what that arrangement of limbs and pelvises and skin-tones is about.

Its scintillating.  Its offensive.  Its sexy.  Its terrifying.  And if that’s what they are going for: they did it.

I guess, from an objective standpoint, I appreciate the beauty of the black models.  Its rare that you see such a multitude of dark-skinned people being depicted as somehow beautiful — even if they do appear to be worshipping at the feet of some white Aphrodite character.  And yet the lone white individual in a place of exaltation among a mass of brown is a potent image, especially for African-Americans.  I think, immediately, of Tarzan.  Tarzan who was KING of the jungle.  A white child that was thrown to the wolves as a babe and grew up amongst the animals — he becomes king of the jungle.  Meanwhile, all this Africans who’ve been living there for thousands of years have no idea how to commune with nature, eh?  Even as a child something about that didn’t jibe right.  Still it is a theme in variations across all kinds of media.  Movies, literature, photography, television — you name it.  Music?  Is it Elvis singing “the blues” or Benny Goodman inventing swing?  Whatever it is, we know all about it.

And I mean no disrespect to Elvis or Goodman who were great artists, but they are poised in the annals of history as white conquerors.  Musical conquerors, yes, but conquerors nonetheless.  White lodestones in a sea of unforgiving darkness.

I’m not sure if I’d call the photo racist.  Not in and of itself.  A “racist” photo to me is probably still something involving older more explicitly derogatory stereotypes.  The watermelons on the lawn of the Whitehouse or Obama as the dead chimpanzee in the New York Post — to name a few more current examples — are fair game to be called “racist.”  Werbowy’s photos are something somewhat different.  They are certainly racially insensitive and they tap in to deep racial understandings that have become the norm for our modern, Western way of thinking.  They betray the unintentional racism that comes from privilege and ignorance.  Their effect is more insidious than their making because they serve to reinforce our sense of the wrongness of these images.

But perhaps the most troubling thing about these photos is that they still work.  Is that this very, very simple arrangement is still so very effective.  For all the complexity, commonality, and plurality of this era of the internet, cellphones, and television — we are still afraid of the dark.  And its possible that may never change.

STEPHON JOHNSON: It never fails.

Each year, a magazine decides it wants to titillate, excite, anger and amuse America with racial tension. Each year, there’s a photo that might plays on stereotypes purposefully or accidentally. No matter the nature of the beast, it’s sure to rabble-rouse the rabble-rousers and agitate the agitators.

Enter Interview Magazine.

Mikael Jansson shot an editorial for Interview titled “Let’s Get Lost” which made the rounds online next week. As part of the editorial, Daria Werbowy offered a short bit of commentary to the series of photos:

“Let’s get lost. The hour is late, the air is thick, and the evening is charged with a steamy sensuality. What works? Tone-on-tone swimsuits, slithers of silk, and plenty of skin, as flesh meets flesh, body meets soul, and Daria gets lost in the heat of the night.”

What some have taken offense to is the concept of  “getting lost.” The Huffington Post said, “From the differences in their dress (Daria’s in ethereal, angel-like gowns, the others are in knits and leathers) to their body language (A limp yet super-sexual Daria is the main focus, the others feel almost like props), the whole spread has a rather racist vibe that we can’t get down with despite the gorgeous art direction of the spread.” The photos, while quite gorgeous leave a bit of ambiguity and interpretation to the viewer. While you can acknowledge the beauty of the pictures, you can also see it as another example of Black people being used as “props” or background for White people to ignore, be afraid, be enticed by or turned on by the dark “other.”

The “White object of desire in a sea of Black” concept isn’t new. Criticism was directed at Christina Aguilera’s video for “Ain’t No Other Man” back in 2006 for showing Aguilera as a fair-skinned object of desire surrounded by mostly dark-skinned people (in a homage to jazz clubs in the 1930′s and 1940′s no less). The alleged perpertration of the hyper-masculine, sexually-insatiable Black male goes back centuries. Most recently, however, the issue came to light with the LeBron James/Gisele Bundchen front cover for Vogue back in 2008.

It’s hard for anyone who is of darker hue to not see this as anything other than racist. It furthers stereotypes of Blacks as something other than human. Something to play and have fun with, but not acknowledge as a person with feelings. But that’s the power of art. You can also see anyone who projects issues of race onto these photographs as saying more about themselves then about the photos. There several Blacks (and Whites) who have written on comment boards for this story say they don’t see anything racist about the photos.

Interview magazine did this to shock us on purpose and many have taken the bait. Interview got the attention they wanted. Interview wins. And race relations stay exactly as they were the day before anyone knew of these photos: perpetually in limbo.

But hey, at least the photography was beautiful, right?

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  3. Akie Bermiss says:

    wow. i forgot all about Lebron and Gisele. yeah, that’s classic on some straight up King Kong type iconography. good reference.

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