Annie Leibovitz’s Zendaya Vogue shoot reignites call for Black photographers

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Apr 17, 2024 at 01:39 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Annie Leibovitz, the American photographer renowned for her intimate and iconic celebrity portraits, has found herself embroiled in numerous controversies over the past few years. Despite her illustrious career, Leibovitz’s reputation has been tarnished by accusations of her inability to capture Black women in a flattering light. This criticism stems from numerous instances where her photography failed to do justice to the beauty of melanated skin tones, with poor lighting that often results in lacklustre portrayals.

The latest round of outrage emerged following Leibovitz’s recent Vogue shoot featuring actress and Gen Z icon Zendaya. Social media quickly erupted with theories alleging that the photographer intentionally portrays ethnic-minority subjects in an unflattering manner. Netizens have also argued that she was using editing or lighting techniques that she typically refrained from when photographing white public figures.

While some netizens disagreed with the critique, it’s evident that this conversation has been ongoing for quite a while now. This is not the first time Leibovitz has faced backlash for her handling of Black women in photography.

Previous instances include photo shoots with Simone Biles, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, Serena Williams, and Rihanna. They have all drawn criticism for their lack of vibrancy and grace. Observers noted how the lighting in these images failed to complement darker skin tones, appearing dull, ashy, and devoid of vitality.

Even portraits of prominent Black figures, such as Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, have come under scrutiny for their uninspiring portrayal. People specifically took issue with Leibovitz’s decision to showcase former president Abraham Lincoln’s towering statue in the background, suggesting that it overshadowed Jackson’s significance in the photograph.

One Twitter user expressed her frustration with Leibovitz and Vogue’s approach, highlighting the perceived misrepresentation of Jackson’s legacy and suggesting that there had been a deliberate oversight in glamorising powerful women.

In response to so many people sharing their disappointment with both Vogue and Leibovitz,  Anna Wintour, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, addressed the issue in a letter to staff, as reported by Today. In the letter, Wintour assured staff of the magazine’s commitment to diversity when featuring Black models and photographers. However, this pledge was met with scrutiny, and the publication’s decision to keep working with Leibovitz instead of elevating established Black photographers to cover their blindspots speaks for itself.

Shortly after Wintour’s letter was shared among the staff, Black photographers and designers took to social media to showcase what diversity could look like in practice. Using the hashtag #VogueChallenge, which originated from Salma Noor, a model based in Oslo, Norway, these artists created mock-up Vogue covers featuring Black models.

Noor, who had longed to see representations of people who look like her, was inspired to initiate this visual challenge. Other photographers and designers quickly joined in, demonstrating the power of social media in advocating for inclusivity and representation.

 

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This controversy is just one example of the broader issue of minority representation within certain industries, such as modelling and photography. Leibovitz’s recent portraits of Zendaya may not be as egregious as some of her previous work, yet they serve as a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggle for authentic representation in photography. While strides have been made, it’s clear that we’re far from achieving true inclusivity. The conversation sparked by Leibovitz’s images underscores the urgent need for change in the industry.

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