Vogue Thinks the Hurricane Sandy Coverage Didn't Have Enough $5,000 Ball Gowns


For some reason, Vogue decided the proper way to document Superstorm Sandy was to send photographer Annie Leibovitz, fashion editor Tonne Goodman, and models Karlie Kloss, Chanel Iman, and Kasia Struss to go pose in designer clothing next to the emergency-room doctors, police, fire, and Coast Guard officers who were busy trying to actually clean up the disaster and provide aid to its victims. The resulting fashion story is almost mind-meltingly stupid. The boots Karlie Kloss is wearing in this photo, by the way, retail for over $1700.

It would be facetious to argue that if posing for these pictures took even one emergency responder away from recovery work for a minute, that’s one too many: similar objections about voyeurism and disaster tourism could be raised about almost any kind of disaster photography, and there are many perfectly legitimate reasons — such as keeping people informed about and creating an enduring a record of an unfolding tragedy, and potentially spurring donations in real time, and by the way Vogue did raise a lot of money for Sandy relief by organizing designers to donate to a charity auction — why photographing natural disasters can serve the public interest. It’s not necessarily a waste of time or resources to allow a photographer to document the work done by first responders or the anguish of victims — provided that the images that emerge are worthy of the privilege of such access.

My objection to this spread isn’t that it was made, it’s how. Look at it! It’s cliché and cheesy, and marred by a truly breathtaking condescension towards its subjects. These subjects don’t need Leibovitz’ Vaseline lens to dignify their efforts; she should have limited herself to documenting their important work. The juxtaposition of top fashion models in evening wear amidst the destruction of Sandy — the thousands whose homes were lost, the tens of thousands who required emergency meals and housing and the millions who were left without power — is tasteless and tone-deaf. This is not the right way to incorporate disaster photography into your magazine.

The thing is, Vogue wasn’t always the kind of magazine that would see a disaster like Sandy and think only “Let’s add evening wear!” Believe it or not, it used to publish straight-up documentary and war photography — Lee Miller’s photographs of World War II and the destruction of Europe were completed on assignment for Vogue and are now considered classics of war photography. Why couldn’t Vogue commission a talented photographer to simply shoot a portfolio of photographs of Sandy aid workers and victims? The “fashion” angle here is offensive — not only to the many people affected by the storm, but to Vogue readers, a group with enough native intelligence to understand a photo of a disaster-ravaged neighborhood even when it doesn’t come with a helpful, acontextual supermodel in Ralph Lauren.

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