Have you seen the new Christian Dior images everyone's buzzing about? Creatively, the photographs are genius. They are striking. They have a hazy, ethereal feel -- like family photos that have been dusted off after decades to reveal an era long gone.
They're also causing quite a stir, with many people calling them racist.
First off, these are a personal project and creation of Chinese photographer Quentin Shih
. They are not part of a global campaign; "Shanghai Dreamers
" is a series of couture images to celebrate the reopening of the Dior boutique in Shanghai. They currently hang on the walls and in the windows of the revamped boutique.
"This is a personal project that only represents my point of view. An ad campaign represents the point of view of Dior," Shih tells Lemondrop.
So what's the issue? If you look closely at the dozens of women and men who flank the Dior-costumed models, you'll see that they are a copy of one individual, duplicated again and again. Critics are ripping the images apart, saying the Dior portraits are a blatant depiction of the idea that "all Chinese people look the same."
I take issue with this argument.
Had Shih instead surrounded the Caucasian model with dozens of Chinese women who all had a similar look, in order to achieve the same effect, those critics (and probably many more) would have erupted with the same argument -- but with far more outrage. That truly would have sent the message that they all look the same.
Consequently, Shih duplicated the same person repeatedly, indirectly circumventing this argument. Yes, they all look the same -- because they are all the same. It's far easier to stand out from the pack when the pack is a series of carbon copies. Shih says the mass-duplicated commoners don't actually represent people at all: "I wanted to show the power of Chinese people standing together and a kind of socialism in Chinese history (only in Chinese history not China now)," he adds. "The Chinese models are not people. They are symbols of Chinese history between the 1960s and 1980s."
Now, I do think Shih's choice of a Caucasian model could be a small problem. If the model had appeared solo in those images, the ads would have looked like every other high-fashion campaign: a lithe Caucasian model in a striking pose. Those campaigns go global every spring and fall to coincide with seasonal collection launches. No one gives them a second thought, regardless of whether they appear in U.S. or Nippon editions of Vogue. But surround her with identical Asian women or men, and suddenly it's a racist campaign.
Turns out, though, that Shih didn't have an Asian model option. "Dior provided me an opportunity to photograph the models they used for their haute couture show in Paris," Shih explains. "I selected eight models according to how their wardrobes matched my uniform color palettes."
It would have been much more P.C. to choose a leggy, glam Chinese model to stand out among the duplicated commoners in the portraits. But perhaps that's not what sells in China. Caucasian models have been used globally (and particularly Asian countries) for decades. In 2008, The Washington Post
highlighted India's surprising number of Caucasian models on billboards, in magazines and on television in the country, all selling something, from sunglasses to vodka. "Some advertising insiders contend that the trend is partly an attempt to give products an international look," the article's writer explains. "But this quest is limited to hiring Caucasians. Africans and East Asians rarely make an appearance."
Side note: Let's not be so self-righteous, here, as a culture. It was only last year that Victoria's Secret, for the first time, used an Asian model in its runway show
. Even the model was surprised she was selected.
The concept of Western and Eastern culture clash is not new to photographer Shih, who previously shot a 20-photo series entitled, "The Stranger in the Glass Box
." Caucasian models are shown trapped in glass boxes, surrounded by various Chinese onlookers for 2008's "Dior and Contemporary Chinese Artists" exhibit in Beijing. (This time, the Caucasian models are the oppressed ones.)
So, let's be clear: As Shih explains it, "I was given 100 percent freedom for both photo series. There was no Dior creative team involved in these projects." Does that make a difference? Are you less likely to bash Dior now?
The Dior team was probably fully aware of the ramifications of these images. They most likely knew that could be considered controversial in the Western world and get them loads of press, but that they would work just fine in the East -- and even sell some clothing. And that's the point, isn't it?
Maureen Dempsey is executive editor of HybridMom.com and a frequent contributor to Lemondrop -- and a defender of photos. Previously she took on the issue of the "racy" photos of the Miss USA contestants.