Vogue Photographer Accused of Cultural Appropriation in Rihanna Cover Shoot: Where Is the Line?

Vogue Photographer Accused of Cultural Appropriation in Rihanna Cover Shoot: Where Is the Line?

Photographer Juergen Teller is under fire for his recent images of pop singer Rihanna created for Vogue magazine. Teller has been accused of appropriating the work of Mickalene Thomas, a staple in black female art.

Mixed-media artist Mickalene Thomas has been a prominent artist for nearly a decade, known for her elegantly stylized images of black women. Thomas pioneered a distinctive style, one that could be described as pop art with a strong emphasis on pattern and color. Due to comparisons of his recent Rihanna photoshoot for Vogue to Mickalene Thomas' unique style, photographer Teller has found himself in hot water, with critics accusing him of cultural appropriation. This episode is turning into a double whammy for Teller, a German artist, as he not only faces criticism for copying (or arguably stealing) Mickalene Thomas' style and works, but also for purportedly mimicking an artist iconic to black American culture, of which he is not a part.

Being familiar with Mickalene Thomas' work from art history classes, I decided to revisit her body of work as well as the current, controversial Vogue photoshoot. There are in fact many similarities between the two styles. The often evocative poses, patterns, and even facial expressions of the Vogue shoot all seem to be at least a nod to Mickalene Thomas' trademark style.

The original Vogue Paris cover

This case aside, where do we draw the line in qualifying cultural appropriation or theft of art? In such instances, intent seems important. Satire that’s informed and intelligent can qualify as legitimate, as does a thoughtful, artistic reference to another artist. But simply copying or crudely mimicking an artist’s distinctive work tends to be dishonorable among creatives. However, even intent is subject to interpretation.

These days, it isn't just mocking or even commenting on another culture that is dangerous. Imitating or borrowing from cultures can be viewed as patronizing and is generally off-limits. This means an homage, salute, or revamp of anything outside one's own culture is oftentimes problematic today. Earlier in the year, a Utah teenager wore a Chinese-styled dress to her prom and was subsequently dragged through Internet hell for it. The irony of the whole situation is that seemingly nobody from the culture had expressed outrage; in fact, the general consensus on the Chinese social media site Weibo was excitement and applause for an American appreciating their beloved culture.

A traditional Chinese dress. Image by Frederica Diamanta via Unsplash.

On the other hand, counterarguments often seem to miss the point. "As if Mickalene Thomas never copied another artist!", one Twitter user exclaimed. I'd say this misses an important historical issue. After suffering through centuries of slavery followed by over a century of oppressive discrimination, black artists in various fields have been justifiably offended when their work has been stolen by white artists.

Aside from copyright laws, there aren't clear-cut rules when it comes to (loosely) borrowing from works of art, and even such laws are heavily subject to interpretation. Just last month, a court ruled in favor of a defendant company who blatantly stole copyrighted images from a photographer to use on promotional materials. The infringing party walked away scot free due to the ruling that the images were published on Google and therefore "fair use."

The idea of cultural appropriation is nothing new, and has been ingrained in the arts since the beginning of time. After studying the songs of great Delta blues musicians, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Paige reworked classic riffs into high-powered electric rock songs. Were these songs admiring tribute or uncredited theft? Early rock-pop music featured many other white musicians “covering” the records of talented black artists. These ranged from the laughably horrible (Pat Boone mangling Little Richard) to the many successfully re-arranged covers of R&B records that the Beatles performed with artistic integrity. How would one assess such vastly artistically different covers?

How exactly can it be determined when Teller (or any artist) has the right to borrow from another culture? If you're not part of the culture being appropriated, are you allowed to dictate who can express what? I'd appreciate having a thoughtful and civil discussion on this subject. You’re invited to leave your comments below.

Lead image by Juergen Teller via Vogue.

Scott Mason's picture

Scott Mason is a commercial photographer in Austin specializing in architectural imaging.

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Cultural appropriation is ridiculous....

The french invented the tie for suits, is that cultural appropriation?

I'm from Brazil and soccer and carnival are a big part of our culture, so should I ask Amazon USA to stop selling t-shirts from Brazil's national soccer team and demand that no american can visit Rio de Janeiro during carnival?

It's like that interview where Katy Perry was apologizing for "cultural appropriation" in one of here music videos, but was, at the time of the interview, using traditional indian clothes...

If your society doesn't mix with different cultures, the society is racist, xenophobic, white supremacist...
If your society try to mix with different cultures, you are stealing, "appropriating"....

Currently I'm a great believer of Buddhism, but probably should not be because that's "not my culture"....

He should start posing white people the same way just to piss them off even more...

The cultural appropriation police are just trying to carve out a monopoly on something because of fear of competition. Such boundaries should not exist in a free society.

This is probably one of the most stupidest plagiarism/copycat stories of the year. The photo is "in the style of". Yes. And? Is it a copy of another? No. Rihanna is not on Thomas' photos in the same outfit in front of the same BG. So WTF is the problem? Art feeds literally on reworking existing works.
I was also about to take music as an example. In that case that would mean I cannot write and/or play a blues song because someone, one day, played a blues song? (and god knows how much of the blues can quickly sound alike). And if I'm a white guy playing the blues then it's cultural appropriation? Really I shouldn't !!
Whaaaaat ? Accusations like that are from people that ARE close minded (and in this case border line racist). Not the other way around.

Actually, if this were music Teller would already be in court. Music is guarded to a much higher standard than visual art.

Only if he used the same model or the exact same cloth and so on (for music that would be the same melody or lyrics without permission).

Copying someones (exact) style might be questionable but not illegal

I would refer you to the Marvin Gaye -Robin Thicke case over Thicke's "Blurred Lines."

Don't get me wrong, I agree with you, there is a lot more fuss about music (call it higher standard or simply more money involved).

Thank you for the example.
In the testimony they speak about similarities in melody, using the same notes to start the song, using the same accords in the hook and so on. They listed several very specific points.
The only aspect where i find the two images to be suspiciously similar is the posing and face expression.

If we simply talk about the style of art, and that's what this discussion was about, your example cannot be used, as the 2 pieces aren't even in the same style.

Maybe visual art is more prone to taking inspiration from other artists? It's similar in paintings where everyone tried to paint like the few great masters of their period.

Anyway, i think the critical aspect of this case is the "social outcry", which to me is more than ridiculous.

Kirk Darling either you didn't read my comment right or you don't know shit about music.

Must be nice to be the folks who clearly have so few problems in life that they have to invent fake problems such as "cultural appropriation" so they can still have something to complain about.

Are we not going to talk about that henna tattoo on her hand?

If not, then those complaining about cultural appropriation can STFU.

Good point, I didn't even notice that at first.

Matcha should only be drank from a yunomi. Racist! ROTFLMAO

Seriously... I would just show those 'offended' a big middle finger... As I'm not a fan of Teller (he did IMO sh*** photos for polish Vogue), this whole situation is BS... GROW UP, PEOPLE!

The cry about "cultural appropriation" is a form of racial segregation.

Even within the context of a, often ridiculous, concept like cultural appropriation this can’t even remotely be that.

Thomas isnt a culture. She is an individual. If anything, the only claim that can be made here is plagiarism but even that is a stretch. Thomas wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to use vague styles such as bold patterns and intense expression in photography.

Did the photographer, art director, and Rihanna copy Thomas? Maybe, only they know. it is also just as likely they had never even heard of her. The concept on display here isnt exactly some novel, highly unique creation, it is reminiscent of styles that are as common as mud in fashion photography.

There is no such thing as cultural appropriation. Either appreciate the photograph or don't. Identity politics has no place in front of or behind the camera.

"Cultural appropriation" is a problem for libtards and no one else. No one is stealing anything from another culture by respectfully using it to add value to a different culture.

That pose has been used in art for hundreds of years, and by many artists and photographers and to accuse someone that there work is copying someones work is a joke. Having looked at Mickalene Thomas other work some of that is questionable.


'You can offend some of the people all of the time'.

Civilization itself is based on 'cultural appropriation'. Gutenberg's 15th-century refinement of moveable type -a technology which was introduced more than 400 years earlier, in China- was 'culturally appropriated' around the world, and gave a significantly broader swath of people access to books, with the necessary consequence of an explosion in learning, an in creating and inventing and, arguably, in the arrival of the Renaissance, which was stepping stone for the Industrial Revolution and for our modern space age/interwebs era that lets us today sit in our living rooms and argue with people around the world -all of it built on the back of moveable type, 'culturally appropriated' from Asia by Guttenberg, and by the entire planet from that German inventor.

If each tribe is limited to only the arts & sciences they have created or discovered themselves, without any contributions -offered, built upon, or 'appropriated'- from outside their own community, what you wind up with is a global archipelago of loin cloth-wearing primitives, be they Crees or Croats, Berber, Portuguese, or Vietnamese. Illustrative of cultures that have, for the most part, avoided cultural appropriation are those primitive tribes still lurking in the Amazon, shooting arrows at low-flying helicopters.

The bargain made when you participate in civilization - if you like your water filtered of poisons, your sewage whisked away with the touch of a button, your 4G service reliable, your healthcare, your vacation time, your clothes, housing, transportation, banking, fire protection, roads, grocery stores, electricity, education- is that, outside those ideas you trademark or copyright, we *ALL* get to benefit and share and 'appropriate' each other's ideas, because it is for the betterment, the furtherance, the refinement of our collective, common good, advancing that civilization of which we are all a part, be it in the sciences or in the arts.

I'm mostly against having Emoji in Unicode, but for the purposes and intents, it's useful this one time. 🤦

I think this is kind of ridiculous. I have done some illustrations in the style of Dia De Los Muertos and I have gotten praise for them from the Mexican community even though I am not of Mexican decent. They were even featured in Lowrider Arte Magazine.



oh, and now is my bullshitmeter broken.

This is similar to Mickalane Thomas's work and the other two photos look like they were culturally appropriated from David Bailey and Irving Penn.
Some people have ideas and execute them some people look thru what has already been done and say "let's do something like this!". Most visual artists have swipe files or inspiration folders, sometimes to trigger an idea and sometimes that IS the the idea. I do.

Theres a good chance the Vogue and Rihana's team had a big pile of inspiration photos and after a few meetings boiled it down to these three.

There's even a chance that Thomas and Teller know each other, as they both share the same art dealer in New York. That's all I know about their relationship, however.

The concept of cultural appropriation is divisive fantasy. There is zero chance anyone exists in the modern world who has not culturally appropriated (generally considered a compliment or common sense) music, food, clothing, hair style, interior decoration and on and on. A quick look around whatever room any of us are in at this moment will probably prove that point.

Think about if we applied this to photography. Anyone here guilty of "appropriating" concepts, lighting styles and techniques used by artists you admire? I sure am. It's how common trends and cultures grow - through blending and appropriation of things that work and rejection of things that don't.

I don't mean to sound political - but this is the single dumbest topic of our time.

I'm confused as to how the photographer is to blame. Its a big production and I'm assuming there are a lot of moving parts. Most likely there was a stylist & creative director who had more say in the image that the photographer whose sole purpose was to take the photo and collect a paycheque. They also most likely had to pitch this idea to Vogue. So like everyone is just throwing the photographer under the bus? This doesn't make sense like at all.

Its art - everyone steals ideas from everyone, everything's been done before and nothing is sacred. Art is now - who can do it better. I notice trending styles all the time in photography - are we all just going to get hypersensitive and mad? Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't Rinnah black? where is the black cultural appropriation - is it because the photographer is white? I'm confused.

David, what you're describing might be the very reason Teller has remained silent on the issue. Perhaps he's been thrown under the bus, but if he shifts the blame onto anyone else, it would be the production crew/client he is working for. That solution could be a blunder for him.

harharhar.. Im so offended i might write a blog post about this.. First: How do I set up a blog?

I am not at all familiar with this cultural appropriation issue and don’t quite understand where that problem came from. However, looking at the cover...the multiple shadows under her chin, the eye bags and the flat lighting...the photo just doesn’t scream “vogue quality” to me.

Oh, give me a break! So because a white photographer was influenced by the style of a black photographer, he's accused of "cultural appropriation"? BTW, your statement, "These days, it isn't just mocking or even commenting on another culture that is dangerous. Imitating or borrowing from cultures can be viewed as patronizing and is generally off-limits." should include three more words: 'if you're white'. Yes, I actually said it because it's the truth. No one except us white people are ever accused of such nonsense! Ya know, it's amazing how civilization has survived this long without even following all of our current politically-correct rules. Pfff!

It could be argued that Mickalene Thomas 'culturally appropriated' Andy Warhol. But I guess because I myself am a white person, I'm "mocking" Thomas and this is "dangerous" territory, right? Yeah, right.

It is utterly ridiculous that in this day and age, people can't seem to have the ability to see the positive side and just want to be outraged.

Hell, if these folks come over to my home country, Singapore, they'll be throwing a fit because we have a day, racial harmony day, where we wear clothes of different cultures to celebrate and enjoy each other's cultural identity. No culture is exclusive to one's identity, cultures adapt and change according to the social changes.

Hell, why aren't people outraged at the fact that you see Asian people wearing suits? Or jeans? Wouldn't they be cultural appropriation as well? Should tortillas only be used in only mexican cuisine? Is California roll another form of cultural appropriation?

Look, if you want to be triggered for cultural appropriation, then don't be a hypocrite. Be triggered for every form of 'cultural appropriation', or don't. This is an issue largely seen in USA and some western countries. There are bigger and more important issues to be triggered about. Take a chill pill.

If art is your game you will never win it by trying to avoid offending people. The only way to avoid peoples opinions is to put your camera away and keep your mouth shut about your ideas. Also cultural appropriation is a silly concept. Most people who make accusations of cultural appropriation are wearing an item of clothing that originate from a culture that they are unfamiliar with.

If culture is the way we express ourselves, then it is by nature sharing. So I think the idea of having to defend celebrating and sharing the things we enjoy or find beautiful about cultures (that we weren’t born into) is bizarre. Culture is arbitrary anyway – it has no precise boundaries; it evolves by sharing ideas and expression from other cultures; and therefore it is neither sacrosanct nor exclusively owned by one particular ethnic group.

I think the issue here is that European colonialism forced many cultures to change. And as a global society, we are not really sure how to deal with this. So we are uncomfortable with western (mostly white) photographers (particularly men) “taking over”.

But as a human being, I want to be able to SEE and LOVE things that I find BEAUTIFUL and INSPIRING that other human beings have created from cultures ALL AROUND THE WORLD… and share them with other human beings. If I incorporate art or craft from one culture into my work, this does not deprive anyone else of doing the same.

Plus it’s all completely arbitrary anyway! None of us chose where we are born. None of us actually have proprietary rights over the random culture we feel we are part of. And the way to stop the increasingly insular rivalry is to recognise that all of these boundaries and identities were created to hold power over us… Who has any right to decide where you live? Or what music you enjoy? Or what type of art you create?

Perhaps anyone who accuses another of cultural “appropriation” is actually the one guilty of it? They are the one failing to recognise that the nature of culture is to express and share, therefore they are not fully honouring the culture they are blocking others from celebrating. ;-)

Wow, very insightful commentary. As a neophyte in the world of photography, I had no exposure to this idea of cultural appropriation. When I think of the creative space that I have entered with respect to the art of photography, I never would have imagined that "stealing" someone's style was a possibility. At best, one may be able to mimic another person's style, but to steal it? Every image is unique in and of itself. And to take it to the level of cultural appropriation? There must be more to this story that I'm not getting. Was there a competing bid for the job? Did Rihanna feel violated by the images? How much involvement or input did Rihanna have on the creative process?

In the world of art, people borrow from others out of inspiration and appreciation for the art. Was there anything offensive with the work that Teller had created? Every human being has a fundamental right to express him or herself in their work. Before I make a judgment call on this accusation of cultural appropriation, I have to examine all of the facts before throwing anyone under the bus. In the world of mass media, it is all too easy to throw shade at an individual without examining the whole story. At face value, I have an appreciation for art. I despise the idea that someone's work can be stolen. In principle, you can't steal someone's individual creativity, it is unique. Mimic, yes...but is that a crime?

I'm just getting started, time will tell if it's just my naivety.

In the ancient of Days, written long ago. “ there is nothing new under the sun?

only in the western world do we have the time to worry about such pointless, pitiful and utterly useless things.

They are starting to eat their own. Which is wonderful to see.

I agree with Kirk well said.

Thank you for commenting, John.

From the f-stoppers article:

"Being familiar with Mickalene Thomas' work from art history classes, I decided to revisit her body of work as well as the current, controversial Vogue photoshoot. There are in fact many similarities between the two styles. The often evocative poses, patterns, and even facial expressions of the Vogue shoot all seem to be at least a nod to Mickalene Thomas' trademark style."

I too found them familiar, though I didn't make a connection to Mickalene Thomas' work. It actually reminded me a bit of Edouard Manet's "Olympia." Not sure why that painting specifically, but definitely Manet.

That it should also hark to Thomas' work is not surprising when you consider that..."Mickalene Thomas’ prolific body of work has been instrumental in addressing inequality within art history and art institutions through her representation and reclamation of traditional art historical genres and depictions of beauty and desire around the female body, particularly Black women, who have too long been marginalized in our culture. " (from this article: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/juergen-tellers-vogue-rihanna-mickalen...)

So, Thomas riffs off the proto-impressionists. Was Teller riffing off Manet, and happened to be shooting a black woman, or was he riffing off Thomas' riff off Manet, or what?

And what of Thomas' cultural appropriation? Or is that too awkward a question. I suspect it is.

Ryan, interesting comparison to Manet. The fact that both Manet and Thomas posed women in an alluring manner is the baseline relation in my mind.

One could argue for hours that inspiration is simply an endless chain in art. The question is awkward but definitely worth asking.

Why is it labelled as "Cultural appropriation" though , to me its not got anything to do with the culture or skin colour of the photographers involved - its "Style appropriation" end of.

I'm not sure how anyone can claim "Cultural Appropriation" with this photograph. Is this because of an ugly out of place towel on her head? I'll remind my girlfriend next time she comes out of the bathroom with her hair wrapped up like this that it is "Cultural Appropriation". Maybe disco heads from the 70's are offended?

You don't see anyone making a fuss about her India inspired henna tattoo do you??

It's crap talk like this that takes the culture diversity of people and segregates it even further. I feel like we are regressing as a society due to it.

There is also a difference between mimicking a particular artist's work and "cultural appropriation."

In this case, it sure looks to me like Mickalene Thomas's work was on a mood board on the set.

But Mickalene Thomas's style is her own personal style.

Mimicking her style might be some form of plagiarism, but it's not "cultural appropriation."

Her personal style does not define African-American culture.

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