What No One Got Right About The Domestic Violence Shoot

embedPhoto: Courtesy of Vogue Italia.
If you've been online this week, chances are you've heard about "Horror Story." The current Vogue Italia cover story, photographed by Steven Meisel, is a domestic-violence-themed fashion shoot (editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani herself said that "[this shoot] underlines [...] an important topic: the violence against women, especially occurring within the family") — and if that phrase made you cock your head, that makes two of us. In it, women wearing glamorous designer clothes cower in fear, hide from, or lie dead as the result of knife-wielding men who glower in the background.
There's no understanding the horror, both obvious and subtle, of these photos without describing them, so here it is. In one, a woman screams in front of a staircase smeared with blood while a faceless man approaches. In another, she cries, cradling a phone that the man has already disconnected. In the most widely circulated image, shown here, a woman in a red Moschino dress lies dead at the foot of a staircase with a broken neck, while her assailant sits in an armchair.
At the risk of sounding pearl-clutchy, I can honestly say that these photos caused such deep revulsion in me that I initially refused to write about them. I didn't want to disseminate any further images that I truly believe to be degrading and damaging to women. And, I say this as a horror-movie fan, who's neither squeamish nor unfamiliar with queasy tableaux centered on a woman's fear. (Although, for me, the eventual triumph of the horror movie's Final Girl is a powerful trope that helps make up for her prior victimization — and it's important to note that there is no triumph in this photo shoot.) Just describing these photographs makes me feel like part of the problem, especially around this particular editorial, which has been discussed and analyzed quite a bit in the past few days. I wasn't planning on joining the conversation at all, but I am, because I think there's been something missing about all the chatter surrounding "Horror Story."
As it does, the Internet produced many responses to the shoot. Some were great, like Katharine K. Zarrella's Style.com piece, which rightly asserted that domestic violence isn't pretty and that attempting to address it via a glamorous fashion shoot trivializes a serious issue. Other responses were...mixed. The Business of Fashion's started well, with statistics about the prevalence of domestic violence, before reaching the conclusion that "the only problem [with the shoot] is that there are fashion credits next to the photographs." Yeah, and the only problem the woman pictured above has is a wrinkled dress.
One thing I haven't seen addressed has to do with Franca Sozzani's defense of the editorial. The Condé Nast Italia and Vogue Italia editor-in-chief is no stranger to the controversies that result from her provocative shoots, including one from 2010 using the BP oil spill as a backdrop. So, for this one, she had a statement at the ready. Sozzani stated that her intent was to highlight rising domestic-violence rates in Italy and to "raise awareness of a horror that must be condemned!" The intent, she said, was "in no way to shock."
Two things about that statement make me side-eye, hard. First, I would argue that the intent of any image of a distraught woman near a blood-smeared wall is obviously shock. If Sozzani wanted to present the topic of domestic violence in a non-shocking way, an interview with a survivor, or domestic-violence expert, would have done nicely. Instead, these images give a grave subject the most lurid, exploitative treatment possible.
But, worse, it does so for an audience that hardly needs its awareness about domestic violence raised: that is, women. Statistics vary from country to country, but the CDC reports that one quarter of U.S. women report being a victim of "intimate partner violence" at some point in their lives. What good does it do to "raise awareness" of a crime to its primary victims? Women need to be made aware of partner violence like water needs to be made aware it's wet. Perhaps the energy spent here would have been better directed toward educating the primary perpetrators of DV about how not to be violent toward their partners.
Second, I want to dismiss the notion that, when it comes to images, intent matters at all. "The intent was not to shock," Sozzani states in her pre-emptive non-pology. But, that claim is disingenuous, because an image is a fact. These photographs exist in the world, and they're being widely disseminated here and in many other forums where their context and stated intent will not be known. And, that, in the end, is their most truthful form.
Anyone who sees these images without the benefit of Sozzani's statement will see their truth: These are not photos that denounce domestic violence. These are photos that depict domestic violence in a way that glamorizes and eroticizes women's mortal — and very real — terror. It's shock and exploitation in its most cynical form. The violence that we suffer at the hands of intimate partners is too truly horrific to be turned into a cheap, hot-button issue. And, you can't make us aware of a problem for which we're already paying with our lives.

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