Art can be a powerful way to shed light on tough issues. However, there is a significant difference between raising awareness and glamorizing potentially triggering subjects. Case in point: Vogue Italia has stirred up controversy with a gory domestic violence editorial in their April 2014 issue. So, is it activism or insensitivity?
Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, is no stranger to controversy. She has defended her decision to run certain images in the past. Often, these controversies are beneficial; in 2011, she drew attention to fashion's lack of diversity by featuring only black models in a spread, and in 2008, she featured full-figured models in lingerie. At other moments, however, Sozzani's choices have been problematic. For example, in 2011 she ran a feature entitled "Slave Earrings."
"Horror Story," shot by Stephen Meisel, walks a fine line between the two. Fashionista reports that the editorial depicts models "running from men wielding knives, scissors, and other weapons in dangerous (and, in some cases, deadly) situations." The clothes, provided by Valentino, Marc Jacobs, and Fendi, are smeared with blood. These images are disturbing, raw, gory, and reminiscent of classic horror movie scenarios. But, unlike many horror-themed photo shoots, they are not campy. They ultimately feel a little too real.
In an interview with The Independent, Franca Sozzani spoke out about her inspiration for the editorial:
"[...]the horror of life is bigger than the one that you can see in the movies. This is really a horror show, what we are looking at and what we see every day in every newspaper around the world is how fragile the woman still is today, and how she can be attacked, can be abused, can be killed.”
She later says that the goal of the shoot is not to be provocative, but to raise awareness, to stand up and say that "women have to be defended." Sozzani acknowledges the possibility that she will be accused of glamorizing domestic abuse and posits that controversy is no reason to shy away from activism.
“We sell the dream because we are a magazine; we are the dream, no? Vogue... But at the same time, we can give people the opportunity to have a voice, for awareness."
For someone who has never suffered from domestic abuse, this may seem a fair argument for publishing the disturbing editorial. The images don't intend to glamorize abuse; rather, they are shocking and hard to look at. However, these same images could easily be triggering to a woman with a history of abuse. When an abuse victim is pictured in a gorgeous Valentino dress, it's hard to shake the feeling that violence is being used to sell clothes.
Perhaps a better course of action would be to publsh an article about domestic abuse, rather than run a visual feature with beautiful clothing and models. I can always applaud the use of art to better our society, but not at the risk of exploiting victims.