We live in truly perverse times. Morality is now out of date: torture has become fashionable. Sexy, in fact… This article is from The Guardian’s archive.
“Pain is titillating. In the so-called war on terror, it is easy to assume glibly that sexualised violence is so mainstream that it can no longer shock. But Steven Meisel’s fashion photographs, published in the current issue of Italian Vogue, take the pornography of terror to another extreme. In his lavish fashion shoot, we are shown a world peopled by hyper-real security staff and a faux woman – skinny, toned, and modelling fantasy clothes and shoes. The heavily armed security personnel exude violence; the model oozes sex. In airports and on grimy city streets, she is depicted with her legs spread while uniformed men with phallic pistols and truncheons explore ways of abusing and torturing her. In other photographs, the model becomes the aggressor.
“This is fashion photography appropriated in the interests of the politics of torture and abuse. By fusing high fashion with the so-called war on terror, the photographs do more than simply give readers cheap thrills by their act of aesthetic transgression. The photographs endorse the very taboos they violate. There is a vicarious satisfaction in viewing these depictions of cruelty in the interests of national security. It is no coincidence that the security forces are shown to be protecting us from a person who is neither male nor obviously Muslim. Instead, the terrorist threat is an unreal woman. In contrast to the security personnel depicted, she is placed beyond the realm of the human. Her skin is as plastic as a mannequin’s; her body is too perfect, even when grimacing in pain. When the model is depicted as the aggressor, she remains nothing more than the phallic dominatrix of many adolescent boys’ wet dreams. In both instances, the beauty of the photographs transforms acts of violence and humiliation into erotic possibilities.
“The most disturbing thing about these photographs, however, is that they have taken their inspiration from the torture photographs taken in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq. The visual titillation of suffering, dogs primed to attack people, and women who inflict pain – these have become some of the most common images of the war on terror. In these fashion photographs, we see how those images of torture have been translated into consumer products. Torture has not only become normalised, it has been integrated into one of the most glamorous forms of consumer culture – high fashion. In our current moral state of emergency, torture imagery has become fashionable.”