“Offended” is too strong a word. How about “disappointed” or “mystified” or “flummoxed.” Yes, that’s it: Flummoxed. I’m flummoxed by The New York Times’ Style spread that features young Africans posing in colorful Western garb. The Africans are from Mali, one of the greatest – and poorest – countries on earth, and their clothing, shoes and accessories are from the likes of Prada, Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Christian Lacroix, Louis Vuitton, Dries Van Noten, Dolce & Gabbana, and Oscar de la Renta. Impressive. So are the black-and-white images that were taken by Malick Sidibe, the acclaimed Malian photographer.
The problem – the big, big problem – is that the photos have been (to use a quasi-academic term) decontextualized. In journalism, the biggest priority (other than getting the facts straight) is putting things in context. Forget about “objectivity.” If a piece of journalism – whether a hard-news article or a fashion spread – has no context, it’s sub-par. No essay accompanies the Times’ layout of hip Malians. No writing explains that Sidibe – the first photographer to win the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion lifetime achievement award – is known for this type of studio portraiture. No caption details Mali’s rich cultural history, or its well-known Malian fashion designers (such as Lamine Kouyate). The only thing accompanying the photos are captions emphasizing the Malians’ expensive items.
Last October, the Times’ Sunday Magazine published another Style spread from Africa – this one from Namibia showing chic fashion models draped against old desert buildings. The captions in those photos (like the one for the Malians) trumpeted their high-priced fashion, prompting a reader named Harry Anderson to complain in a letter:
Presumably, shooting fashion photographs in Namibia can be rationalized by bringing money into the country. But showing $2,910 pants and $1,060 shoes in a nation with 40 percent unemployment and a rampant AIDS epidemic is obscene.”
Economically, Mali is worse off than Namibia since it’s one of the United Nations’ 50 least-developed countries. I’ve spent a month in Mali, and have done many interviews there. The people are as proud as they seem in Sidibe’s Times’ photos. Money isn’t everything. But the Times’ fashion spread seems to equate Prada and Gucci with instant happiness – as if anyone lucky to be wearing high fashion is suddenly important. The Times’ news coverage of Africa rivals that of any paper in the world. When it comes to fashion, the paper tests the patience of its most loyal readers.