CHAT: In Response to ‘War & Fashion’

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While I appreciate any writer who has the gumption to throw together two, seemingly opposite, topics and prove them equals; the prose has to support the proposition.

In the case of a recent article by Moni Besu, a dramatic headline and easy, blog-like format sets up an intellectual, yet trendy, expectation that the words on the page are about to reveal something revolutionary. The photos are beautiful and there is a nice use of alliterative adjectives, but Besu’s argument of comparing war and fashion photography is anything but transformative.

A few of the qualms I have with the essay:

1. Besu confuses subject matter with medium. As a consequence, the author misses a foundational point: photography’s ability to equalize everything. An organza dress, a burning car, a sea of models, a war worn face; they all become a photograph. It may be one thing to compare subject matter, but when discussing photography, I don’t believe because a blurry figure walking in a dress is shown next to a blurry figure running past a burning object, taken by the same photographer, that the two-pictured situations are the same. They are however, both photographs.

What Besu ends up with is a ridiculous conversation that discusses the possible similarities between the fashion industry and war.

2. Besu’s essay is set into an overly theatrical page design that has too many breaks, which overdramatize her essay. However, I appreciate her constant juxtapositions with words and language. Some would make for haute, haunting fashion spreads, for example, “Carnage and Catwalk.” But some contradictions are blanket statements don’t always work: “War is ugly. Fashion is beautiful.” What about ugly fashion? Fashion can be ugly too, and I doubt that either statement is an absolute.

3. And then there were the wonderfully self-inflating statements such as, “Sessini found my questions interesting.”

4. Perhaps, however, Besu’s best nugget came, not from her short lived sentences, but from W magazine’s editor, Stefano Tonchi, who was quoted saying, “Not to say that fashion is not war,” he joked. “But what is compelling about the images is the technique.”

Fashion, like many things, is in constant motion. Like war, fashion is always changing and can be, at times, consumed by raw, excited energy. The photographers Besu referenced throughout her essay, aim to portray, through constructs of photographic techniques, dramatics and human presence.

I think it would have been interesting for Besu to consider why there seems to be a trend of war photographers turning their lenses to fashion (perhaps simply for the change of scenery and more money), but I think her initial argument, “At first, photographing war and fashion appear as incongruous acts that are difficult to reconcile. Until, perhaps, you take a deeper look … ” and method are transparent.

The same photographer who has photographed a war and a fashion show, and as a result shows photographs of similar shapes and body movements in a dramatic fashion, means that he or she might be interested and intuitively attracted to similar visual set ups. If we were to explore the similarities between images by photographers who cover sporting events and fashion, or undersea animals and political figures, the photographs would probably show similar visual cues as well. The same photographer would have after all, taken these photographs — much like an author can write one book about love and another about hate.

Sign up for your War Fashion Photographer workshop here.

PS The Financial Times’ response and American Photo Magazine’s response