October 8, 2015

On Norbert Baksa’s “Migrant Chic” Fashion Shoot

Straight off, let me agree that Norbert Baksa’s sexed-up Muslim migrant fashion shoot is abominable. Where I’m having a problem, however, is in the blind dismissal. Baksa’s claim he was attempting to raise awareness seems like so much rationalization after the fact. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something here to learn from – knowing this accomplished freelancer (website; Flickr) is as dialed in to the magazine market as he is to the female form.

I feel it’s naïve to write Baksa off with catcalls when what he has done, as a personal exercise, may differ in degree but not in kind with how his clients, the fashion industry, and the news media, too, are pushing the edge. If Mr. Baksa went terribly astray with this self-assignment, let’s keep in mind that politics is not just the devil’s playground, but the media industry’s, as well.

This campaign, for example, pre-migrant crisis but otherwise not dissimilar from Baksa’s hot mess, was working similar territory two years ago. And it’s not the only example of the fashion industry working these themes.

In writing off Mr. Baksa, one thing we’re also denying is just how much style, aesthetics and sensation also come into play in photojournalism, with that trend only escalating. If Baksa, in melding fashion with politics (and gender, and religion) with such insensitivity, ended up doing grave disservice to all, with it obscures is how much the ability to strategically bake those ingredients together is like the holy grail these days.

For example, when I look at Vanity Fair leveraging off the human right’s victory and the arduous path of the LGBT movement in that cover promotion of the Jenner/Kardashian brand, I think about how adept the media is at straddling the lines Baksa crossed.

Or, when I see Vogue’s photo shoot on the wounded shores of Long Island, models and firefighters cavorting in Sandy’s raw aftermath, I again think about the audacity and expertise in toeing that line.

So, before convicting this photographer as a sole conspirator, let’s keep a few things in mind. First of all, he is not operating in a vacuum. If anything, in fact (his “Der Migrant” title sounding like “Der Spiegel,” and his lead image designed like a published tear sheet), his photo shoot reads as much like a proxy for the trade. Also, let’s not overlook how fundamentally and uniquely these photos jumped from one guy’s Twitter feed straight to the click-hungry traditional media sites, from the dishy Mic to the supposedly staid New York Times.

By the way, when we, at Reading The Pictures, first saw these photos two days ago, there was no way we were going to write about them. The reason is because they had not been published anywhere except the photographer’s website and his Twitter feed. These photographs only became this noteworthy because traditional media, desperate to leverage the buzz, turned them into published media images. I don’t know how to look at that as anything else but encouragement.

(photo 1: Norbert Baksa. photo 3: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, February 2013.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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