After Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeastern seaboard in October — leaving more than a million people in the cold and dark for weeks on end, and thousands more homeless — the American people stepped up with an outpouring of support. People from all over the country raised money, donated clothes and food, and schlepped to unfamiliar neighborhoods to help strangers pick up the pieces. Even celebrities, like Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel lugged debris and handed out relief supplies. Really, it was heartwarming to see that helping was cool. But now, fashion behemoth Vogue is getting in on the trend in the most bizarre of ways — with a 12-page glossy fashion spread "celebrating Hurricane Sandy's first responders," photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
In the feature, impossibly tall and thin models wearing "the best of New York collections" pose among national guardsman, firefighters, and nurses. In one overly dramatic photo, three models sport wedding gowns and indifferent looks while grasping the rail of a U.S. Coast Guard vessel as it plows through rough waves.
In another, Con Edison workers look like they have much more important things to do while standing next to a model wearing "Oscar de la Renta double-face duchesses-satin dress" in a dreary control room.
Before we get too judge-y, though, let's note: The magazine helped raise $1.7 million for the relief effort, which is noble and shouldn't be belittled. But still, this photo shoot...
It just looks uncomfortable, for one, says Charlotte Cowles at New York. "The juxtaposition of hardhat-wearing, drab-looking Con Ed employees posing next to Karlie Kloss astride power plant equipment in a shiny Oscar de la Renta gown is jarring, and unflattering for all parties involved." And the shoot probably interrupted some very pressing work.
Vogue is no stranger to the niche controversy of devising photoshoots from natural disasters, says Rosie Swash in The Guardian (U.K.). A 2010 Italian Vogue spread, for example, featured models doused in an oil-like substance after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But the Sandy shoot is different, Swash says, because "there is more meaning behind Annie Leibovitz's images than first meets the eye." The setups, while incongruous, at least include real-life heroes like the neonatal nurses who carried newborns down 15 flights of stairs, and are presented along with their personal Sandy stories.
Yes, it's nice that the men and women who risked their lives were included and there's no doubt Vogue's effort came from an earnest place, says Nika Marvrody at The Fashion Spot. But however commendable, the tribute feature ultimately fails because the magazine can't help but make "its favorite models the real stars" while the real heroes were "little more than set pieces." Just because Vogue's M-O is fashion doesn't mean it has to lead with it. Marvrody continues:
Do you think that if Playboy wanted to run a tribute to the heroes of Hurricane Sandy, they would do it by plopping a topless lady next to a bunch of firefighters? Nope. They would just run some actual photojournalism. Because you can be a special interest magazine and still acknowledge that the rest of the world exists. [Fashion Spot]