Vogue India and the Offensiveness of Poverty

Allow me to rant.

Vogue India ran a photo-spread in their August issue featuring high-price luxury fashion accessories as modeled by people who — oh, what’s the word — are poor. This apparently caused some controversy. Mind you, these models were not just poor, but barefoot and missing-their-teeth poor. So poor that photographers from around the world come to India to take gripping, black-and-white shots of them in their state of bare-footed no-teethedness (sans Fendi clutch bag, of course), to highlight their, um, pooritude.

Now, frankly, I’m appalled… but not for the reason you think.

You see, I have no problem whatsoever with Vogue India’s photoshoot. I don’t care that they put 10,000 dollar accessories in the hands of people who make less than $1.25 a day (Who! Have! No! Teeth!). I don’t have a problem with these people being shown as poor as they usually are, except flashing a pair of designer sunglasses.

I do have a problem with people thinking that this is somehow offensive to the poor people. Oh, it’s offensive alright — it’s just offensive to people like you and me who buy and read Vogue (I have, and the Indian edition is quite nice). It’s people like us who actually know what a Fendi bag is, know that it costs 10,000 bucks and know that we’ll probably only ever buy a knock-off. It’s people like us who think poor people should only be seen in gripping, black-and-white documentary pictures in National Geographic or some exhibition.

Because — tell the truth now — you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a young, skinny, urban person with a 10K bag in a magazine spread. Do you ask yourself, “Gee, I wonder if that model can actually afford that bag she’s modeling?” No, of course you don’t, because she looks like she can. She’s looks like a perfectly normal, upper-middle-class person who can afford a bag like that, or at least a knock-off. Heck, she can at least afford to eat badly all her life and then have her teeth fixed by a dentist, and isn’t that what’s really important? That she has great teeth?

How is a barefoot Rajashthani farmer any less of a viable fashion model than a size zero caramel-skinned Mumbai model who scrapes together her monthly rent? Because the latter fits in with your cushy world-view of how things should work?

I’m sorry, but a photoshoot in Vogue is neither going to solve nor exacerbate the problem of farmer suicides in rural India, so please don’t demean them (the farmers) by waving that flag around. And luxury brands are not tossing and turning at night in a moral quandary over how they’re going to sell their gold-dusted open-toed shoes in a market where poor people who can’t afford their brand exist. Last time I checked, there are people in the US and Europe who can’t afford it, and luxury goods are still for sale there.

Have you heard of this crazy new invention? It’s called Money. Works a little strange, but you’ll get the hang of it.

(see, told you this was a rant)

Of course, it’s not like Vogue is completely blameless. Firstly, they’ve dropped the ball by not crediting any of the models in their shoot (a courtesy they would show to most professional fashion models no matter how big or small). And when pressed for a response, the editor launches into some kind of biz-speak prattle about the ‘power of fashion’ and how they aren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world. Well, yeah, you’re bloody Vogue, we got that. But like it or not, a statement you have made, and it would help if you could have at least kept a well-prepared, intelligent retort ready for when this thing came up.

So, in summary:

– Fashion mag takes pictures of poor people with silly bags they could never afford.

– Everyone in a city gets upset that they’re seeing people they’re used to ignoring (except in gritty black-and-white shots) holding bags they secretly wish they could afford.

– People who can actually afford said bags are wondering where they can get that sexy ethnic turban the guy is wearing (HINT: Not at Louis Vuitton, baby).

– Creative types are wondering if the poor people are dirt cheap and where they can round up some for their latest campaign.

– Business people decide to comment on the issue by regurgitating every cliche in that last paperback on modern India they half-read on a plane once.

– All people born to be offended, are, and proceed to tack on their pet hot-button issue to things and generally tut and frown.

– As for the actual poor people, well, I have no idea what they think of the whole thing. Most of the people in the pictures are either smiling or bemused — bored, even.

I’m an outsider. I’m not one of them in the only way that actually separates us (financially), and on a cultural level I don’t think they give two hoots. I don’t care when some other middle-class Indian (as most models actually are) totes a Fendi bag in a photoshoot, so do they care when somebody (hopefully) pays them to do the same?

I’m not offended that someone did this. If anything, I applaud it (the photos are beautiful). I’m not offended that there are still poor people in the world while others can afford 10,000 dollar bags. Hey, I can afford tons of crap that other people can’t, and I still can’t afford a bag like that, so where on the levels of entitlement to being offended do I fall? I find all of this amusing and baffling and just a little bit sad.

Mostly, I’m just offended that you’re all still a bunch of idiots.