A photo shoot recently posted online by Mumbai-based fashion photographer Raj Shetye that depicts well-dressed women being groped, manhandled and stepped over in the back of a bus, has unleashed a firestorm of online vitriol for seeming to echo the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a New Delhi bus.
"What happens when a fashion shoot goes all wrong, Raj Shetye? It turns glamour into garbage," Brown Girl Magazine posted to Twitter, accompanied by an image from the shoot with a large red X drawn through it and the words: "Stand Up Against 'Couture' Rape," added along the bottom.
A commenter with the Twitter handle @brownbumby tried to strike some semblance of balance, standing up for Shetye's "right to express."
Raj Shetye has the right to express. Does that right also guarantee that his work will be moral or ethical? No. People can express disgust.— Your Half Brumby (@brownbrumby) August 7, 2014
Let’s put aside just for a moment that the photos certainly evoke such a scenario (though the photographer has taken down the images, they can easily be found with a simple Web search).
And also shelve, for just a moment, the question of whether or not it actually was a fashion shoot -- despite looking very much the luxury brand ad campaigns we've come to expect in glossy magazines, Shetye never appears to identify any specific brand or label.
But, assuming it is a fashion shoot, let's be honest with ourselves – and each other: The fashion world has a long track record of glamorizing this kind of violence toward women.
Over the years I can recall seeing images of women with battered bodies, black eyes and bloodied clothes in ads for everything from street wear to the highest of high-end goods. They've been posed at the business end of a gun, strangled with belts, perched atop burning back alley wood piles and even sliced and hung like cuts of meat. ("The concept store with a butcher shop," reads the text) to advertise a concept store and butcher shop!).
If the idea of a gang rape did inspire Shetye’s shoot then he is guilty -- of being wholly unoriginal. In 2010, Australia's Advertising Standards Bureau ordered billboards touting Calvin Klein Jeans to be taken down because the image of Lara Stone being groped by shirtless men against a chain link fence connoted gang rape.
Dolce & Gabbana -- whose memorable ad imagery includes a woman wielding a carving fork against another woman's neck (in 2006) also went down the gang-rape road with a similar shoot in 2007 that depicts a woman being pinned down poolside by one man while three other men look on.
All open to interpretation, you say? Maybe. But try explaining the penchant for putting women in car trunks -- which seems to crop up more often than you'd think -- including a horrifying 2006 Jimmy Choo ad that has an expired pretty young thing lying in a car trunk at the edge of the desert, legs akimbo, while Quincy Jones (yes, that Quincy Jones) leans on a shovel next to a barely dug hole.
Of course fashion is far from the only industry with unclean hands here. Everything from Guns N’ Roses album art to the book Fifty Shades of Gray has come under fire for glamorizing violence toward women -- and it’s not acceptable in those places either. But in an industry that relies so heavily on the female consumer it seems like a, well, a slap in the face.
And, no matter how well-intentioned the outcry, the outrage against the not-fashion shoot may end up only raising the profile of the offending photographer even further.
You may never have heard of Raj Shetye until today, but, as of this writing, if you click on his studio's website, the following message pops up: “Bandwidth Limit Exceeded.”
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