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The ‘[glorification] of death’ through the depiction of ‘waif’ thin models and unkempt drug addicts dubbed as ‘heroin chic’ has been described as deplorable by ex U.S.A. President Bill Clinton. Its use to sell clothes featuring in high end commercials is condemned as ‘reprehensible and evil’ by photographers and film makers like Nan Goldin. Concerns about this trend rose after the death of photographer Davide Sorrenti, who himself was linked to the ‘anti-glamorous’ style used in fashion photography which dates back as far as the 1960s. Themes linked to youth culture can be found in the 1960s work of Larry Clark, as well as that of Corinne Day, which explicitly depicts illicit scenes of sex and drug abuse. The contributors of this style employ documentary qualities to their photos, supposedly reflecting real life, as opposed to ‘unattainable fantasies’ (1999, Rebecca Arnold) presented in traditional fashion photography, where extensive retouching is used to put ‘sex in the picture’. This in itself raises ethical questions about truth and morality; however is it more ethical than the glamorization of heroin?

It has been argued umpteen times how fashion photography is detached from the real world, Day explaining how documentary photography holds significance in being ‘something [she’s] lived’. Instead of the ‘fake faces and phony poses’, Corinne Day’s ‘Georgina, Brixton’ among many others reflect the real world, with genuine themes evident in youth culture, and I have found this to be true for western societies as this style stretches from the United Kingdom to the United States. It also spans over various decades, reasonably intertextual, with references identifiable by many people.

When the photo is read in a fashion context, it raises questions that challenge the myth that models live the good life and the glamour and wealth that comes with the lifestyle. It contains truthful elements absent from conventional fashion photography, taking an honest and less contrived approach. Day shooting ‘as close as you can to real life’ is perhaps more ethical than the alternative methods used in fashion.

The use of Photoshop and retouching in fashion photography is considered as unethical with mascara adverts using fake lashes to present their product. ‘Fashion photography is not necessarily for people who want to know what clothes really look like’ (pg 2, Fashion Spreads: Word & Image in Fashion Photography since 1980). Day also reflects ‘imperfect beauty’, challenging the need for perfection in fashion, through the use of what she describes ‘less typical’ and androgynous models. Whereas traditional fashion photography is argued as promoting an unhealthy body image and influencing eating disorders, Day shows the reality of being a model in a less attractive fashion perhaps less desirable and more repulsive.

However if it is going to be argued that standard conventions in fashion influence reality, then the same can be said for heroin chic. The glamorization of heroin comes when such chic photos are published and used commercially. Calvin Klein used such imagery of Kate Moss in their Obsession campaign. It can be taken out of context and seem to promote an unhealthy lifestyle and the nature of fashion as a trend setting force naturally inscribes heroin chic as such a trend within photography and within a wider context in society. By presenting something new and controversial it immediately becomes interesting and alluring, especially if it rebels against standard norms and conventions. This is similar to that of post modern discourses and cynicism of the 80’s under the government of Margret Thatcher. Being anti-something is also embedded in youth culture as it is in heroin chic. However, was it ethical to give such photos such a platform in what Baurdrillad argues is a heavily ‘media saturated’ society where it is hard to distinguish real from fake? After all, heroin abuse isn’t a reality for everyone, so by heroin chic’s use in reflecting a youth culture in magazine like The Face and Ray Gun targeted at that audience, it sets a new standard in youth culture, this being what’s normal, this being what’s trendy. With responsibility as a producer of media, it may be argued that it irresponsible for heroin chic images to be produced and published.

Day didn’t intend for her work to be considered in this way, her intentions to reflect life as opposed to ‘fictional fashion’. She was reflecting her life, which is what she wanted; mentioning her surprise upon realising traditional fashion photography had less to do with the photographer than the designers and models. The photo Georgina, Brixton does more to raise concern about heroin chic instead of promote it, however unintentional in Day’s nonchalant candid approach.

“…a model inhabits the claustrophobic interior of a sparse flat. The cheap, dirty carpet and bland décor are a far cry from the lush settings more familiar to the glossy magazine. The model wears scanty red underwear, its lines drawn out in rippling black lace. But this is no vision of eroticism and desire: her thin body is contorted; she seems unaware of the camera’s exposing eye. Her confused expression and shiny skin have been interpreted as signs of drug abuse, her mannered posture as the result of a narcotics rush.” (1999 Rebecca Arnold, Fashion Theory, pg 279-95) The meticulous calculated set up of fashion sets it far from the truth and Day does well in capturing a moment that catapults itself miles ahead in significance than traditional fashion focusing attention of the reality.

There should be more concern centered on the influences that lead to drug abuse than photos which reflect it. It can also be argued that it brings to attention a crisis in the fashion industry. “Heroin chic isn’t what we are projecting, it’s what we are. Our business has become heroin chic. Someone taking pictures of that magnitude has to have experienced hard drugs” (1997, Francesca Sorrenti, Helmore and Pryor) There is more of an issue in the offense society takes to bleak representations of truth and quickness to take refuge and comfort in lies.

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