Romanticizing the Poor
Even as the economic gap between the rich and the poor is growing steadily larger, the physical gap between the rich and the poor is narrowing.1 Slums are often just a short walk from upscale beaches or border posh neighborhoods, and shantytowns can be found near luxury resorts. The media brings images of the poor into the living rooms of the advantaged everyday. It is not possible, nor politically correct, to just ignore poverty. The affluent can actually visit poor neighbourhoods and photograph or film the poor in their “natural habitat,” either sanitizing or romanticizing their lives. Indeed, entertainment and poverty have come together: poortainment.
In 2008, the fashion magazine, Vogue India, featured a 16-page spread of poor Indians wearing ultra expensive accessories by top fashion designers such as Fendi, Burberry, and Marc Jacobs.2 Vogue India editor Priya Tanna stated in the Independent: “For our
India issue, we wanted to showcase beautiful objects of fashion in an interesting and engaging context. This was a creative pursuit that we consider one of our most beautiful editorial executions.”3 Thus, in this “creative” outlet you can see the poor, but not really see them. Poortainment uses poverty as just another prop, a colorful backdrop for marketing to the rich.
The people in the Vogue India photographs are not that poor, at least not by Indian standards, and seem quite happy and dignified. The photographic spread, however, provoked much criticism from both Indian and foreign commentators, ranging from distasteful and vulgar to callous and exploitative. Surprisingly, the magazine was taken aback by the negative reaction to the photographs and even asked the critics to “lighten up.” At a minimum, Vogue India needs to learn the first rule of global marketing: sensitivity to local culture and people.