Writing on photography

Migrant Chic: Or Why Fashion is Politics

The refugee crisis has brought with it more than a few innovations, or at has least served to highlight things many of us weren’t really aware of before (which in the ever more mnemonically challenged world we occupy is often what passes for innovation). I have written and tweeted a fair bit about the use of Instagram for example by refugees and migrants, both real and fictional ones. So now it’s probably not a surprise that another maybe-innovation has come along in the form of a fashion shoot apparently inspired by the crisis.

Photographed by Norbert Baska and titled Der Migrant, the series which has now been taken down consists of a series of images of an attractive, scantily clad model wearing a headscarf, draped in various poses over and around a barbed wire fence and being manhandled by a man in a Hungarian Rendőrség uniform. In several images she holds a smartphone with a case emblazoned with the logo of luxury brand Chanel, in others her top is undone partially revealing her breasts.

Dr. Thom Davies, a researcher focusing on the refugee crisis, first drew my attention to the series on October 6th, and since then the images have picked up ever more traction online as social media shudders in collective outrage and clickbait sites looking to generate a few cheap hits repurpose the images for their own ends. Comparisons are inevitably being drawn to the 2001 Ben Stiller movie Zoolander, a send up of a fashion industry utterly out of touch with the real world. The film includes a deranged fashion designer named Mugatu who launches a clothing line named Derelicte modelled on the clothing of the ‘homeless, the vagrants, [and] the crack whores’ of New York.

The comparison to Zoolander is superficially apt, but also in some ways it’s also misleading and defusing. This isn’t work to laugh at, to dismiss as if someone just didn’t get the joke. It’s darker and more complex than that, and offers an opportunity to consider just how skewed popular perceptions of migrants and refugees are becoming. The claim that many of these people are really economic migrants on the make is so regularly trotted out that it starts to be taken as truth when it fails to chime with fact, and is more than implied by the stylish clothes and Chanel branded phone here. Baska’s work also however offers a chance to challenge the commonly held belief that the fashion world is somehow separate or immune from politics. This work opens up these discussions not least because of the currency of the topic it takes as it’s stylistic vehicle, but also because Baska does what I’ve rarely seen a fashion photographer do before, which is to include a text explaining, or perhaps justifying, his photographs.

I won’t quote from this at length from this text as it’s readable here, but I just want to pick out a couple of salient points. Baska argues that the shoot is about drawing ‘attention to the problem and make people think about it’ and that he doesn’t intend to glamorise a bad situation (which does beg the question why he would employ an inherently glamorous genre like fashion photography). In the same breath he also invokes the use of shocking installations and images by artists as a justification for producing images almost guaranteed to offend someone, somewhere. If the apparently flippant handling of a vitally important topic dosen’t bother you, then perhaps the juxtaposition of female nudity with a symbol of religious modesty will do the trick.

Even the choice of title for the series is instructive, in intentional and unintentional ways. Baska explains the use of a German title because ‘Germany is the leading power of the European Union and most migrants wish to live in Germany’ and also claims that the use of a masculine article in the title of a series of images of a woman was intended to sow the idea that what the media say about these people is not always the reality (a valid aim, but it’s unclear exactly which media line he is railing against). The choice of ‘migrant’ as opposed to ‘refugee’ is obviously also very leading in a debate where such terms have become extremely charged, and to use one term rather than the other is a choice often made to unambigiously advertise the user’s political loyalties and agenda.

The fashion industry as caricatured in popular culture like Zoolander is often suggested to be beyond politics (or simply naively indifferent or unaware of it) but I think this is almost never the case. What Baska’s work hints at is that every decision is political in one way or another, and the politics that often underlies a fashion shoot is clear to see if you’re only willing to scratch the highly polished surface and take a deeper look at the ways those images have been constructed. I’ve written here before for example about the work of Vivanne Sassen, which raises interesting questions about the extent to which African cultural appropriation forms a vital part of the way the fashion industry markets its wares. The representation of race and body are equally big unresolved issues for the fashion industry, and are in no less a way questions of politics. To misquote Coco Chanel: ‘fashion fades, only politics remains the same’.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

  • Great article, and really interesting points. Do you think the fashion industry is more aware than it lets on though? Of course there is some (OK- a lot of) courting controversy to make a sale, which does suggest awareness of a wider political landscape. And perhaps I’m letting the stereotype rule my thoughts here, but having worked in fashion, certainly at the high st end there seems to be a distinct lack of engagement with politics. So much so that you do get people producing work which really doesn’t carry the messages they think it does- the ‘Zoolander effect’ is hilarious but also a sad reality. And not everyone even appreciates the problem after it’s pointed out to them- either they don’t understand or are in denial. Just thinking about the backlash surrounding the ‘are you beach body ready’ ads earlier this year, some of the comments made by Protein World showed a massive lack of understanding of their intended audience and were frankly disgusting and insulting. Sure they made headlines, and probably sold product as a result but why risk further sales by alienating some of your potential market further?

    I feel the fashion industry perhaps is more aware of politics than it pretends, but mostly sticks it’s fingers in its ears and buries it’s head in the sand since this seems to suit it better.

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