Dead Women, Dead Turtles: Fashion Photography and the BP Oil Spill

Debbie says:

WARNING: Seriously potentially triggering images of dead-looking women amid oil spill damage.

Remember heroin chic? Now it’s oil spill chic. Lisa at Sociological Images shares with us Vogue Italia’s photo spread “Women and Oil” in which the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is appropriated into an “edgy” fashion shoot.

Lisa says:

I see nothing at all ironic about highlighting the destruction of working-class people’s livelihoods with obscenely expensive clothes designed primarily to enhance the status of elite fashion designers and the rich people who can wear them.

I also think that a great way to address the destruction of ecologies and death of thousands of animals by oil is to dramatize it with women substituting for the animals. I love seeing women who appear to be dead or dying! It makes me feel so beautiful and good about myself! I mean, this fashion shoot says nothing if it doesn’t say “we care.”

Thin blonde women in unreal clothes, dead on oil-soaked shores, and at least some parts of our culture think this kind of imagery is not destructive.

This one looks to me like it’s from a violent crime movie:

torso, head, and hair of a blonde woman, lying dead-looking in an oil puddle on the edge of a beach

Is she dead or is she masturbating?

young blonde woman in leathers, sprawled on jagged oil rocks, one hand limp at her crotch

Are those oil stains on her arms and legs? Or are they ornate lacy stockings and gloves?

blonde woman in black sprawled on jagged rocks. Ribbons of oil

Lisa’s point, based on this and many other blogs about this kind of photography, is that “We must hate [women]. … Why else this constant glorification of their abuse?”

Of course, Lisa is right about woman-hating. However, something else is also going on.

BP went to great lengths to suppress pictures of oil-stained wildlife. But no one will try to suppress these photos. We’re much more inured to pictures of dead women than we are to pictures of dead birds and turtles. We see dead or dead-looking women everywhere: fashion photography, art photography, television, movies. We see stained and misused and pathetic looking women even more often, and even more places. We’re lucky if we don’t see the real thing. Dead birds and turtles are much rarer, and much more shocking.

And (as Lisa indicates) what we see the least of, always, is images and stories of the lives that are changed for the worse: workers with environmental illnesses, oyster farmers, fisherman, Gulf community dwellers (more likely to be affected based on their income and their skin color).

I don’t just hate the way fashion photography glamorizes dead women, or just hate the way these images are made familiar. I also hate the way glorified images of dead women are used to obscure true stories … including true stories of dead women (and dead turtles), and women (and turtles) whose lives could be saved.

2 thoughts on “Dead Women, Dead Turtles: Fashion Photography and the BP Oil Spill

  1. I also see this as cashing in on the latest “anxiety” button. The BP oil disaster is stirring up negative emotions and it’s been proven that we’re wired to pay more attention to threats than non-threatening stimuli. That part of the way our perception works can be used to create “disturbing” art or attention-grabbing ads. Mixing sex in with anxiety is also an old marketing trick.

    As a murder mystery reader and author I’m well aware of the “women in jeopardy” and the “sexy murder victim” covers that try to grab readers. Dashiell Hammett wrote a massively politically incorrect short story in the 1920s (when such a concept did not exist although racism was in full flower) that managed to link sexism-racism-exoticism and danger all in the title: Dead Yellow Women.

    I’m curious (trying to understand the marketing goals of the folks who made these ads) at what the target audience was and why damaged women and soiled-looking clothing would prompt them to buy fashion. Just wondering.

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