Not en vogue: human props.


I understand the thrill of traveling, particularly for a photoshoot. Even moreso if that photoshoot is somewhere exotic, new, and unlike anywhere you’ve ever been. When you have a strong bond with the photographer- which I definitely appreciate because many of my best friends are photographers-  it makes everything even more fun: the locations, the wardrobe, the styling, the props!

But the props…the props I’m noticing more and more in fashion are actual humans. Not like “here we’re posing together for this campaign, lookbook, or magazine” but “let’s use these kids or this withered man in the shot because they add such local flavor!”


I’ve done photoshoots in Cambodia for various projects, brands, and photographers- and one thing I’ve been adamant about is ensuring that 1. we never use other people to support “our” scene to make it look cooler and foreign or 2. if someone is part of the shoot that was not planned, they are willingly asking to be part of the shoot and are compensated in some way or form.

I wrote a piece last year when I was the editor for Ladies magazine about human props when the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue came out- along with a lot of negative pushback for the images. Yes, there were hot women in sexy swimwear. But there was a lot of usage of “locals” to push that image to the next level, and not in a good way.

I’ve been noticing this trend among a lot of photographers, designers, and the like in Phnom Penh recently and every time I see an image that uses a cyclo driver or impoverished children to amp up the glamorous models donning highstreet fashion with their faces done up makes me cringe. Especially with all of the racially driven conflict spread throughout the world (and a specific focus for me on the Ferguson case being an American) I thought I’d revisit the article I had written a while back and see if how I felt then still rings true now.

Turns out, it does. I don’t get into politics if I don’t have to, I try to skirt things that I don’t know a lot about, and although I’m Asian American I can’t begin to pretend I know anything about how it feels to be racially profiled, truly abused or hurt for my background and blood, or been the brunt of racist conjecture (that I know of). Regardless, I still have my thoughts of what is and isn’t acceptable and how in the world of fashion, where image is so skewed anyway, there’s one more thing we can add to the list of screwed up aspects of the industry.

While I don’t mind a super skimpy bathing suit, a sexy lingerie spread, or a bodycon dress (hell, I love ’em all) there’s being sexy- and then using other less advantaged people to try and force the point even further. (*I did note that I was pretty harsh on the swimwear choices, I don’t know why since I like most of the pieces and I’m not one to shy away from a Brazilian cut) Couldn’t they just have stuck with the babes romping around in crystal blue waters with sandy bums and coconuts in hand? Someone in that boardroom thought it would be ideal to spice things up with a wrinkled, old, hardworking man and a few Chinese elementary school girls!

So here we go, a little blast from the past from Ladies magazine, the September issue.

“Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue is the editorial highlight for thousands of men across the globe; buxom beauties rolling about the beach in little more than a triangle of fabric to cover their nipples? Bikini bottoms smaller than the size of a post it note just barely covering perfectly airbrushed and waxed lady parts? It can’t get much better than that for many “readers”. While many feminist groups, and just women in general, saw the magazine’s issue as degrading to women, many other of their female counterparts saw the photos as “thinspiration” or fuel to get to their desired weights, choose the right implant size, or how much hair they wanted to remove in their next session with their waxer. Even with the varied frenzied opinions around it, the Swimsuit Issue has stayed iconic.

Founded in the 1950s, Sports Illustrated was seen as America’s most influential sports magazine, highly regarded and respected by the sports industry. The first Swimsuit Issue was published fourteen years after the magazine initially launched, purely to fill space during a slower month for sports by a less than famous photographer. Over the years, the term sex sells rang true and Sports Illustrated has become more widely known for their breast laden photo spreads than their sports savvy by a wide majority. It seems their titillating tactics have worked for them, considering the Swimsuit Issue has in the past generated up to $35 million dollars in advertising sales alone.

In the heralded Sports Illustrated 2013 Swimsuit Issue, however, it seems the publication not only lost their focus on bouncing basketballs and zoomed in more so on bouncing breasts, but crossed the line in a way that sparked outrage from a wide number of onlookers. Deemed “racially and sexually dehumanizing” by a blogger on Reappropriate, Sports Illustrated was put under heavy fire after releasing its most recent edition. In this year’s Swimsuit Issue, models (predominantly white) including Alyssa Miller, Anne V, Cintia Dicker, Emily DiDonato, Genevieve Morton, and Hannah Davis were placed in different countries around the globe, using people from native Asian and African countries as “props” for their swimsuit clad models. There were some of Kate Upton among penguins in the Arctic, but if penguins were part of her background scenery and cute props to boot-what does that make the humans in the other photo sets?

There was a loud uproar from several blogs, news sites, and publications, including Shanghaiist and Jezebel, upon the release of the tasteless spread. In one photo, model Jessica Gomes stands not with but in front of a lineup of young girls wearing their traditional garb in Guangxi, China. Jessica Gomes is scantily clad in a barely there printed bikini. Not only is the model not interacting with the children used as her backdrop, but utilizing the pre-pubescent girls as the setting for her body as she exhibits her obvious sexuality.

In another shot in Guangxi, a bikini wearing Anne V lounges atop a raft as a local fisherman uses a pole to move her langourously across the river. Using this man as a prop, especially as a lower-class worker ultimately serving the model, is an additional slap in the face to the minorities who were “chosen” to partake in the photo shoot and continues to derail the integrity of the entire photo shoot’s basis. In a Jezebel article covering the topic, Dodai Stewart wrote: “A white person relaxing, a person of color working. Tale as old as time.” In these photos, the local residents are not being used as attractive models to join the Sports Illustrated women in unison and of equal value, but to provide as supplementary cultural props and scenery, seen as no more use than the sand the model stands on or the hat their server wears atop his toiling head. As Sports Illustrated implies, China serves as a milieu of poverty, Old World, and pure ethnicity-not as one of the world’s largest economic forces and holding one of the most modern cities in the world.

A particular set of photos had some readers especially angry; shots taken in Namibia where a black man was, once again, used as a prop for the model. Emily DiDonato, wearing pure scraps of fabric to cover her body, stood against the sand where a primitively dressed man sets the backdrop for her wielding a spear to add to the exoticism of the photo and further urging Westerner’s fetishism for all things unusual and foreign. “For me, the African picture was probably the most offensive because it played on some of the most old and stereotypical images, it showed the African as primitive as almost uncivilized,” said Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Columbia University. (source: ABC News)

People can argue all they want about using women’s sexuality against them, but when facing the facts-the models that were cast to bare their bodies in swimwear chose to be part of the publication, shown in a glamorous light, and finishing the project with a hefty paycheck. What many are questioning is how the locals from each site were chosen and how much, if it all, they were even paid for their work. Not that this would make a difference in their role as a human props, but still the question remains. The blogger, Angry Asian Man, who also felt quite strongly about the photo spread, wrote “I hope everybody got paid properly for their human prop services.”

Sports Illustrated does not face these accusations alone, however, with Vogue (both UK and American) caught under fire for “glorification of colonial racism”, as Carmen Van Kerckhove stated in an article with brands like J. Crew (their Bali shoot specifically), Free People and Conrad, clothing lines and a hotel chain, using non-Western locations and the locals as background props, barely even noticed by their Caucasian counterparts.  David Leonard, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University told Yahoo! Shine, “these photos depict people of color as exotic backdrops, as with beautiful oceans, picturesque trees, people of color are imagined as exotic, as novel, as foreign, as uncivilized and as a point of comparison for the civilized white beauties scantily clad in bathing suits. Beyond functioning as props, as scenery to authenticate their third world adventures, people of color are imagined as servants, as the loyal helpers, as existing for white western pleasure, amusement, and enjoyment.”

These are only a few of many advertisements, editorials, and fashion spreads that stand guilty under these faults. In 2007, Vogue UK featured an article titled “Indian Summer” with the tagline “Eclectic, colourful, crazy…The modern gipsy’s style is every bit as exotic as her travels.” With many elements similar to those mentioned above photo spreads, like a Caucasian model set apart from the locals around her by her blonde hair, light skin, and different garb. While in reality, the actual setting has cars, motorcycles, paved roads, and all in all civilization as a Vogue on-set video later showed, all symbols of a modern world are removed from the spread to create a spectacle of unruliness. A spread in 2009 was again published with the title “Indian Summer” by Vogue, but with a different set of photos and models.

The term ‘centrality of whiteness’ is used heavily in many articles and blogs focused on these photo shoots using locals of foreign countries as props, but the sad truth is that using human props slinks into photo shoots all over the world, whether the model be one hundred percent Aryan looking or of color. This particular rule is shockingly simple: humans are not to be used as props. They are just that: humans.”

My main point is quite clear: photographers and models, when you’re conducting a photoshoot especially in a country that’s trying to grow and flourish, consider what you’re surrounding yourself with. Who you’re surrounding yourself with. And while you may get caught up in the excitement of things, consider how you would feel being the equivalent of a vase of flowers or a heap of chilis in someone else’s shot.

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