W magazine recently sent fashion photographer Tim Walker and supermodel Edie Campbell to Burma, where they shot an editorial that juxtaposed Campbell (so white! so chic!) against the a background of the nation's "exotic" landmarks and citizens. It's gross and poorly conceived-of in every way that one would expect.
The text accompanying the spread, which is sort of aptly entitled "Gilt Trip," is remarkably orientalist and shockingly ill-informed. Here's a lil' sample:
What they found was a land so visually and philosophically far-out—at least from their Western perspective—that it conjured the trippy heroine of this story: Prudence Farrow, Mia's "rather uptight and impossibly perfect Buddhist sister" as Walker describes her, who got lost in deep meditation while in India, thus inspiring the Beatles song "Dear Prudence." Along her mystical tour of the country, Prudence, as played by Campbell, encounters Madame Thair, the wealthy owner of an antiques store in Yangon; members of the Kayan tribe, who are known for their neck-elongating jewelry; and a holy temple shaped like Humpty Dumpty.
This reveals a deep insensitivity to and ignorance about the culture of Burma. In their fantasy narrative, Burma and India — two very, very different nations — are interchangeable because both are "trippy," "mystical" and "far-out" to the Western imagination. I don't even have to explain what's wrong with the phrase "a holy temple shaped like Humpty Dumpty."
The text is but four paragraphs, but W manages to squeeze a surprising amount of cultural imperialism in there. To wit: "Amid all the beauty and wonder, the crew also discovered a country that is very much set in its ways..." Let us count these ways: first, "Campbell was required to crouch, lest she be too close to an elevated Buddha. 'It may seem outdated to us, but it's where the country is,' Walker says." Uhhhh. Okay. Well, Burma is a country that predominantly practices Theravada Buddhism; it's just proper etiquette in that religion for all laypeople to keep their heads lower than Buddha statues, as well as the heads of monks and nuns. Crouching by a Buddha statue isn't abiding by some "outdated" practice — it's respecting another culture and religion. (Walker's statement is akin to someone saying, "They made our model put on a shirt in The Duomo! It may seem outdated, but, hey, that's where they are in Italy.")
Secondly, we have this fucking sentence:
[T]he concept of a fashion shoot is so foreign to the locals that enlisting their help was often an exercise in making lemonade. Walker asked for six nuns in traditional pink robes; one monk in orange turned up.
Oh ho! Silly "locals"! So difficult! So bad at following the specific demands you made on them so that they might appear your fashion spread as a complement Burma's trippy and spiritual splendor! If that's not an exercise in making lemonade, I don't know what is.
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In some, Campbell dresses up as a Buddhist monk, in a fashion approximation of the orange monk robes. We have talked endlessly about how it's not okay to wear another person's culture as a costume because — as Ayeshda Siddiqi put it — cultural appropriation occurs "across a matrix of power: the power of visibility, the power to define what is 'ethnic' in the market." When you try on a culture that's not understood or accepted in the mainstream as a costume, you devalue and demean it, mark it as Other.
In others, she poses with the "exotic" people of Burma. Even though the women in these images are not relegated entirely to the background, their function is to juxtapose our "civilized" world of fashion and photo shoots against the more "primitive," fantastical land of Burma. And Campbell's Western-ness/whiteness is still centralized — in the photo shown below, the Kayan tribeswomen are literally clapping for her.
And sometimes the shoot simultaneously appropriates and exoticizes! Here's Campbell dressed as a monk (in Pucci!!!), sitting beside a monk and pretending to beg for alms.
Walker tells W that he felt very "welcome" in Burma. "Nothing was too sacred for us Westerners," he says. Uh, yeah, apparently not.
Images via W.