Social media recently blew up over H&M's controversial hoodie ad, which features a black boy modeling a sweatshirt stating "Coolest monkey in the jungle." Other sweatshirts from the same line, stating "Survival expert," were modeled by white children. Clearly the images of the young models are filled with racist undertones. But is it realistic to think that H&M didn't even think of a possible issue? How does this reflect the photographers who took the image? And why have we yet to learn from our mistakes in the industry?
It very well could be a possibility that the Swedish clothing company did not consider the potential repercussions of customers. Perhaps they weren't entirely aware of the way these images would be perceived by consumers halfway across the world. Either way, this decision cost them. Music artist The Weeknd, who has worked with the company in the past, cut ties after seeing the ad. “I'm shocked and embarrassed after seeing this photo,” he said. “I am deeply offended and will not be working with H&M anymore.”
It's difficult to fault one person in particular for this ad. At some point down the line, whether it be during the photography, postproduction, or publishing of the photo and ad, someone had to have realized it wasn't the best idea. In response to the criticism, H&M said Monday in a statement to the Washington Post:
We are deeply sorry that the picture was taken, and we also regret the actual print. Therefore, we have not only removed the image from our channels, but also the garment from our product offering globally.
Relate this issue and the repercussions to similar content published in the past. Last year, Dove received extensive backlash after sharing an ad showing a black woman turning white after taking off her brown sweatshirt. A Dove soap bottle sits next to the woman.
Or consider this controversial laundry detergent ad published in China. It shows a Chinese woman stuffing a physically dirty black man into a washing machine while putting a detergent packet in his mouth. He then comes out a few moments later. But this time he isn't black, he is a sparkly-clean Chinese man.
This next one is unrelated to race, but again raises concern regarding publishing and taking sensitive photos. In December 2012, the New York Post's cover photo showed a man standing on subway tracks, with a train unbearably close. Beneath the man, large white text screams: "DOOMED." The Post faced heavy criticism for publishing the photo. The photographer, freelancer R. Umar Abbasi, also received criticism for taking the photo in the first place. He was questioned as to why he didn't help the man about to die.
The National Press Photographers' Code of Ethics states: “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.” Perhaps Abassi was following his moral obligation as a journalist, and this is why he didn't help the man on the train tracks.
Consider South African photojournalist's "Struggling Girl" image, for example. In 1993, Kevin Carter was photographing the famine that struck Sudan. He witnessed a girl resting, and watched as a vulture landed behind her. He waited 20 minutes for the bird to get closer to the girl in order to take the best image possible. He had yet to realize that he captured one of the most "controversial photographs in the history of photojournalism." Little did viewers know that immediately after clicking the shutter, Carter chased the vulture away. But he didn't help the girl. Like the vulture, he left the scene, too. However, Carter was a photojournalist in a time when it was common practice to not touch famine victims for fear of spreading disease. Still, could he have helped her in any other way?
Carter obstructed the real-life event only after he took the image. Apparently, Abbasi attempted to help the man on the train tracks by firing off his flash to warn the operator. Obviously this didn't help. I could somewhat understand if Abbasi, in the heat of the moment, thought that he was simply capturing unobstructed real-life events, as a photojournalist ultimately should. But in the end, in this case, I truly believe Abbasi's moral obligation as a human to help other humans, outweighed his journalistic obligation of capturing the moment.
The American Society of Media Photographers Member Code of Ethics states in its "Responsibility to Clients" section:
Conduct oneself in a professional manner and represent a client’s best interests within the limits of one’s professional responsibilities.
The National Press Photographers' Code of Ethics also encourages its members:
Think proactively, as a student of psychology, sociology, politics, and art to develop a unique vision and presentation.
The Professional Photographers of America Code of Ethics simply states to its members:
Each member and participant shall agree to use the highest levels of professionalism, honesty, and integrity in all relationships with colleagues, clients, and the general public.
Being a world citizen (hopefully) correlates to at least some understanding of global history, and understanding that race is a sensitive topic in any country. Being a human being (hopefully) correlates to the desire to help others, rather then watch them perish right in front of one's eyes. On top of being human, all members related to the publication of the controversial content discussed above work in the photography or design industry. Or at least have a strong connection to it. Why didn't they think twice about the repercussions tied to their decision to publish the content. Did they not have viewers' interpretations in mind?
One common theme threads all of these cases together: at some point during the process of sparking the idea, photographing, postproduction, and publishing the photo, video, or ad, no one seemed to think twice about how the published content would be interpreted by viewers. If someone did, they didn't bother voicing their opinion, or didn't voice it loud enough. Regardless, the industry has made too many of these mistakes in the past and being oversensitive to publishing sensitive content is way over due.
What do you think?