Last week, Indian photographer Raj Shetye joined a long line of fashion photographers who have glamorized violent, abusive, and dangerous situations involving women. His photo series,The Wrong Turn, gained world-wide condemnation in just a few days for its depiction of a woman on a bus being groped by a number of men and trying to (unsuccessfully) fight off their advances. The model in the series, a beautiful young woman wearing designer garments, appears uncomfortable and tries to break free, but cannot. The photos are disturbing and uncomfortable-making. They’re an artistic wrong turn for Shetye, a sad addition to a disturbing trend, and they’re especially unfortunate, given India’s recent history.
It has been almost two years since the horrendous gang rape and murder of a young intern on a Delhi bus, which gained worldwide attention and sparked worldwide outrage. After seeing a movie one night with a friend, the woman boarded a bus home and was beaten and repeatedly raped with iron rods by a group of male passengers while the driver drove on. She later died. Her death ignited a series of protests and shone a light on India’s rising rape statistics and oppression of women. The protests led to Indian women’s voices finally being heard worldwide on the issues of rape and rampant sexual assault in their country.
Though the similarities between his work and the 2012 incident are fairly unmistakable, photographer Shetye claims that the idea for the photo shoot came to him two years ago, before the bus rape and murder, and, as he told Buzzfeed, “It’s not based on Nirbhaya.” (The December 2012 rape is commonly referred to as “Nirbhaya,” which means “fearless” in Hindi and was a fictional name given to the real victim.)
So, what is the Shetye photo shoot telling Indian women? It normalizes the unacceptable, it beautifies the unspeakable.
Shetye is not the first (and sadly will probably not be the last) photographer to depict violence against women in a stylish, glossy, alluring way.
Just check out this Duncan Quinn ad from 2008.
This Bulgarian magazine spread from 2012
Or this Dolce & Gabbana ad, which was pulled in 2007—but only after running in Esquire magazine.
Fashion is a powerful medium and it can have a big influence in a vast country like India—and the world over. The more we depict violence against women in beautiful, glamorous ways, the more we normalize this violence. If Shetye really wants his art to stand out, perhaps he should work on portraying empowered women who are unafraid to speak out, women who stand up against injustice, and women who are supported and protected and can live unafraid to be in a world with men. That’s an original concept we’ve actually (rarely) ever seen before.