It's no secret that I love Anthropologie. I used to be a salesgirl at an Anthropologie store, and they were a great company to work for. Often I think their clothes, maybe better than anyone's, exhibit the beauty and expressive art of fashion. They can really put the wonder into getting dressed.
Their latest catalogue and ad campaign really worries me, though. It is set in India, and the film that accompanies it on the website is called 'India Rising.'
It is meant to feature what is certainly a beautiful country, and highlights models wandering through city streets in beautiful clothes. It is like a travel journal. It seems to me, though, that it is not just the clothes and accessories that the viewer (consumer) is supposed to look at with longing & the desire to acquire.
Indian people themselves -- women, in particular, depicted alone rather than part of a crowd -- are part of the sale. They are meant to be exotic and compelling, and the contrast between the woman positioned as a tourist and the Indian women working around her is, I think, meant to highlight the very foreign-ness of India. This, though, turns these women into objects in the catalogue meant to usefully sell a dress or a skirt, just like another prop or anthropologie accessory. Objectification.
This feels worth writing about here for a few reasons. These photos are beautiful -- and so are all of the women in them -- there is no doubt about that. They artfully depict the things Anthropologie has for sale, which I understand is the point of a catalogue. In fact, I really appreciate and admire the fact that this company chooses to incorporate travel into their understanding of their prime customer. What is Anthropologie trying to do with these images, and why would that have worked on us, on me? I love to travel, I would love to go to India, and if I ever get to go, I will undoubtedly accidentally capture the images of strangers without their consent in my photos, thinking (however secretly) that their presence makes my trip somehow more meaningful, more authentic.
The problem is -- I think I am part of the target for an ad campaign like this. That is why I think it is so important for me to speak about what is going on here. I am a student, a lover of beauty, a sucker for fashion, and a dreamer of travel. These photos, though, and the short video of their shoot, do not sing me a subconscious capitalist lullaby in which I begin to believe I can purchase my status as a citizen of the world. Instead, they remind me that the gaze of westerners is harsh, insensitive, and even dehumanizing as they (we) consume not only things that we find beautiful, but people.
The Indians in these photos are, obviously, real people. They are meant to do more than act as a background for the white characters in the catalog plot. These (white) women are depicted as agents, by my reading, moving from scene to scene as they wander in vacation mode. Viewing the people caught in the background within this space -- the space of consumption, of object-craving and object-making -- generates (perpetuates) a power imbalance in which I (the American student, addicted to Anthropologie) have the power to appraise and appreciate a whole group of anonymous Indian extras.
At best, I think this artistic choice was well-intentioned and creative, but ultimately harmful in its re-creation of a power imbalance between companies and consumers who can descend on an exotic locale and locals who remain after the cameras leave. I think it was geared at wealthy western women who imagine ourselves travelers, with an expansive taste for wandering and a real desire to meet (and even develop relationships with) people who have lived different lives than we have. These images alone do not introduce us to these people, though, they are only the blurry backdrop for our adventure. At worst, this kind of depiction of the global south solidifies the distance between the Anthropologie customer and the photographed Indian even more, irrevocably separating us from the experience we are trying to purchase.
In my opinion, though, this is a reaction to a desire that I think we should celebrate. The longing for boundary-expanding, for being uncomfortable, for adventure, for connecting with people abroad, for appreciating beauty. That just takes a lot of work. The danger of this consumption of others through this depiction is that we might feel like we have done the kind of work required to meaningfully engage with global inequality, when we haven't.
Anthropologie as a company has faced other issues -- marriage equality laws & copyright infringement -- but this time I feel a special urgency to capturing my reaction. The struggle to meaningfully engage with people who seem different, exotic, interesting, even beautiful, without transforming them into simply a teaching tool on my path to self-hood is something I struggle with. It could easily feel as if looking at photos like this does that work for us, connecting us to an exotic other world, but in reality it is harder and much messier than that. What makes these images attractive to me, I suspect, is their depiction of that connection without revealing any of the uncomfortable or self-giving work it requires to have it.
Images matter. That is a necessary underpinning of a blog that relies on images to communicate about art, about style, about faith & attempts at faithfulness. What we tell ourselves through the images we see and save, especially when they are instructive, selling images, reflects the big questions about who we are in relation to one another. A desire to Eat, Pray, Love one's way through the developing world does reflect a kind of sincerity and hope, but ultimately, using other people as tokens on our path of development is just that... using them. How can we do this differently? How can we as shoppers, how can we as retail stores? Is ethical shopping possible? What about ethical tourism? Ethical gazing?
I have some ideas, but I'd love to hear yours.
[all images courtesy of anthropologie, the ever-compelling personifier of objects and objectifier of people, inextricably linked to neocolonial travel diary visions...]