War & Fashion – Intellectual Exercise or Gut Punch?

A few days ago Moni Basu of CNN published a provocative piece comparing the photography of War to the photography of Fashion.

Whether this is an absurd evocation, an intellectual exercise, or an astute reflection I’m not calling it. I can’t. But the idea of taking an individual photographer who has shot both war and fashion and juxtaposing images from the two bodies of work, was curious and very disturbing. At one end, sure, there’s the composition and technique – brilliantly and noticably similar…at the other end of the spectrum is the danger of belittling such a weighty topic as war with such a flippant topic as fashion. All in all, plenty of tension, which is why I thought this a worthy share.

I still don’t know what to think. Generally speaking its not a surprise that popular reactions worldwide to this piece have been swift and, dare I say it, overwhelmingly unflattering. Basu has been quick to defend herself by explaining:

We are not comparing war to fashion. We are comparing the photos that come from those disparate circumstances.

But can you compare the photos taken of disparate circumstances without comparing the circumstances themselves? It’s a big stretch to take for the sake of alliteration. Just as Basu took the scales to the two forms of photography, we should take them to her project. On the one hand, I understand the goal of juxtaposition for being evocative. Whether bravery or naiveté, it takes a large dose of both in large doses to dive right into the deep end, which is what she did.

This project will always be an invitation for serious criticism and judgment. Write what words you may write around the images, but sitting an image of American soldiers at the same table as runway models with the title “War & Fashion” at the head is a guaranteed poke with a sharp stick for many. Even for those opposed to war (or fashion for that matter).

I wrote about wartime photojournalists a few weeks ago in part to celebrate the individuals who took the photos but also to appreciate the work itself. Although I threw up a sequence of shots, each photo really deserves to stand on its own — such is the emotional impact they have. It’s hard to imagine comparing say, Eddie Adams’ iconic Vietnam photo to a model having her makeup put on.

I guess I “get” it, but I’m not sure on the issue of taste. But then, I’m no Moni Basu.

[If this topic is unsettling to begin with, please don’t scroll down to look at the photos. And please no ranting. Opinion yes, thrashing, no. This is intended/shared with the goal of critical reflection and respectful discussion only.]

Baghdad, Iraq. 2003. Photo by Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos.


NYC, USA. February, 2008. Photo by Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos.

Beirut, Lebanon. August, 2006. Photo by Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos.


NYC, USA. February, 2008. Photo by Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos.

Cairo, Eqypt. 2011. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum Photos.


New York, 2005. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum Photos.


Baghdad, Iraq. November, 2004. Photo by Jerome Sessini / Magnum Photos.


Milan, Italy. September, 2012. Photo by Jerome Sessini / Magnum Photos.


Cairo, Egypt. February, 2011. Photo by Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos.


NYC, USA. 2009. Photo by Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos.

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While I totally agree that the idea of putting war next to fashion is bordering on reckless, I completely understand where the story is coming from. Interestingly, the deeper you get into the fashion and fashion photography industry, the quicker you realize that people become just as passionate about clothing as others get about war and politics.

The whole war + fashion comparison appeals to two very different types of people, two very different cultures. In that, we must always be mindful of the context and relationships people have with different topics and subjects. With that said, I realize that it might be easier for someone with a background in fashion to weigh in on the topic with less bias than someone dedicated to politics with no interest in fashion. That is the esoteric nature of the fashion world.

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This is just like a fashion revolution. Though it looks cute actually :)

I don’t see «fashion photography» here. I see journalistic work on the fashion world. So this is the first thing common between these two kind of shots.

But there’s something else there. Fashion world is also a war zone. Just as the military movements fashion too is about control. It has it’s own casualties, think anorexia, child workers making your clothing. I don’t know if finding this, a bit stretchy I admit, parallel was Basu’s purpose, yet I see it in these pictures.

Mike Moss says:

1) form is a structure of relations
2) content is a depiction of objects

The similarities between the fashion and war photographs are mostly due to the state of affairs due to the formal structure of the images. These structures are abstract and therefore remain hidden to people unless they are educated and trained in the arts to the extent that they know how to identify and name then when they occur. Since these structures are abstract, they are not dependent on content. This makes them relative.

Meanwhile, content is the objects that are depicted. If people are disturbed by the photographs, it is due to the objects depicted (wounded people, funerals etc) rather than the formal structure of the photos.

To the extent that people are capable of recognizing art, they will see the form regardless of content. To the extent that people are superficial and material, they will see the objects depicted regardless of the formal structure holding them together.

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Jimi Filo says:

It borders close enough to interesting to inspire some contemplation. Maybe this has been suggested, but I think having fashion poses that were close to the fighting and death poses would have been damn offensive… and REALLY effective. People need a jolt; a swift kick in the ass to get them out of the consumer trance.

I don’t have the resources to do such a project, but mabey a photog out there who has both shots to do some composits/overlays of fashion and warfare. That would be disruptive.

I would like to see more of the pairings, the first two I could make a leap of faith between the juxtaposition. By the final set i was wondering why the emotion of the imagery wasn’t similar. I found I wanted it to be about the commonalities of the human condition. I wanted to juxtapose the running to the runway and the running to the corner. I saw anger juxtaposed against waiting. I didn’t get it either.

Marc Johnson says:

Seems to me this is mostly about how the photographers perceive their surroundings/subjects (subconsciously, perhaps) than any particular message about either war or fashion. One could have just as easily juxtaposed sports photography with, say, wild animal photography. It just wouldn’t draw as an emotional response. Or pageviews for CNN, if I’m being cynical. :-P

Tim Roper says:

To call war a “weighty topic” and fashion a “flippant” one completely misunderstands humans. Both “topics” are basic, eternal elements of the human condition. It’s the ego that wants to look good, and it’s the ego that wants to go to war. So a juxtaposition could be very interesting. The way it’s done here, though, seems to just capture superficial graphic elements—a big fail. It could be done well, though. Maybe with a title like, “The Ego At Work.”

faisal says:

very interesting comparo but i dont agree much on the similarity.

Bill says:

In war and fashion, it’s still about capturing the moment. If you’re not there when it happens, you won’t get it.

ami says:

As someone who grew up in a conflict zone (Israel) I always avoided taking pictures of conflict, colleagues of mine won awards because they photographed the conflict, occupation, explosions, terror and decided to concentrate on the beauty life has to offer.
I’d shoot a boring fashion shot any day, over dead bodies and injured.

War is horrible, especially when its on your front door, fashion is beautiful, is art, is pure
(and yes, I am aware of anorexia and egos and distortion)

Jon says:

I can’t understand why some people come across all self righteous about the juxtaposition of these images. War, killing and murder are a natural human condition, one that can be traced back through history. World peace is the unnatural state, it’s not normal, a state that humanity has never had and never will. People must except that photography (a modern form of communication) is available to document what man does. These images show something that might at first seem a comparison between a facile industry (fashion) and a serious condition (war) but both have one thing in common, other than the apparent link between compositions. Both reflect our culture and history, both act as a record of mankind. Don’t belittle the intellectual exercise, if you go beyond the surface you might find something new or you might pause and think about what we are doing to each other. If images of war produce such a charged response, then ask yourself why there are so many wars fought today. The image has changed nothing; we sit back and consume them just like fashion. So maybe this juxtaposition of fashion and war images has more power together, than if they were separate, think about that.

Jeremy says:

Thank you. Your comment is the most intelligent thing said about this juxtaposition that I’ve come across. The comment thread on the CNN page that Chase linked makes me sad for our species.

I find it odd that when looking at a photographic presentation like this, most people are unable to separate the photographs from the reality depicted. Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” painting comes to mind.

Jon says:

@Jeremy, I too was thinking of Magritte’s Pipe painting when I wrote those comments, how spooky. The threads on the actual link posted also make me sad for our future. I suppose that is nature of the internet, which is why a rarely post comments. However I believe we are living in a world where written text is being taken over by the visual image, we therefore need to educate people about reading images and their function and not to react blindly to knee jerk opinion. Thanks to Chase for posting it here, where debate might prevail in an orderly fashion (no pun intended). Can you tell I am a Lecturer?

Tom says:

First interesting critic I have read too. Thank you very much, my eyes were beginning to hurt from the quantity of rubbish publish on the CNN website.
As for any daring juxtaposition, I reckon, misunderstanding is a common response. However for this particular juxtaposition, I would have expected I warmer welcome since bleeding war victims and repainted fashion models often share an even tighter space in newsstands, where one might consider they are literally juxtaposed, whereas only co-adjacent on websites.
To me this juxtaposition is indeed fructose. By alining tow press images, from obvious opposite environments, one lends a new meaning to those pictures. In this case, art in the form of a critic of modern photojournalism. It suggests the ruthless consumption of visual communication in our information era, where the news menu integrates human rights violations on the same plater as frivolous fashion concerns. The very ethic of photojournalism is questioned by the alignment of such images since one photographer can address two opposite topics in one point of view.
What can we say about a society that looks upon to very opposites with the same eyes, that is to me the real question emerging from this juxtaposition. Hence what can one observe from the reaction of most person unaware of this very same juxtaposition in there news stand?

Thanks Chase for posting this piece. Most interesting.

Eileen says:

I can appreciate people taking offense to this, but I think it makes an interesting statement that we live in a world where both of these coexist.

Matt Timmons says:

Another example of art I don’t understand. It’s like I’m looking at algebra, it just doesn’t do anything for me. Maybe I need to take an art class because things like this I never see what the art is. The idea, sure, but as for art, I’m neither offended nor impressed. I just don’t get it. One could do photos of war and porn together just for the sake of saying, “Here, look at me.” Is that the point? To get the photographer noticed? No offence, I’m saying I am the one who doesn’t understand the “brilliance” here.

Jiri Malcharek says:

Hey, I have a similar opinion. I don’t know much about the project so I don’t know whether the fashion photos have been taken deliberately for this project knowing what war photos were to be used or just looked up on the internet. Anyway I don’t get it… I mean the war photos feel so much different to the fashion ones – which feel to me like they have been taken just to make them look as similar to the other ones as possible but they are somewhat empty to me.
But just like you said, I guess it’s marketing, trying to get attention and provoke a discussion (which will be pointless and likely angry – especially from people who either have been in war or even lost someone close in one – but that, I suspect, is not the point of the project) but it will get her noticed.
As much as I hate war, I don’t think people who happen to risk their lives in one diserve respect, and no fence, but I don’t think comparing those two worlds is very respectful.

Jiri Malcharek says:

I’m sorry, I wrote that last sentence wrong – “As much as I hate war, I DO think people who happen to risk their lives in one diserve respect, and no fence, but I DON’T think comparing those two worlds is very respectful.”
Hope noone took that as an insult..

Nomuhwha says:

Agreed. How silly this exercise in self masochism is, I will never be able to fully materialize the proper adjectives to satisfyingly and succinctly describe it.

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