Pakistani designer Aamna Aqeel has spawned the latest race-related controversy in fashion through her ‘Be My Slave’ photo shoot. In a spread for Diva magazine featuring clothing by the designer, a model poses in haute couture style while a nearly naked brown boy attends to her every need.
In the images, the child servant is seen sleeping on the bare ground next to the model, seemingly as an ever-ready attendant, and holding an umbrella over her head. In all the photos, the child looks subservient and downcast.
Aqeel has told the press that she intended the shoot to bring light to the issue of child labor.
In a report by The International Herald Tribune, Aqeel responds to accusations that these photographs are racist and glamorize the objectification of human beings.
“Aqeel’s argument is that she wanted to spark a debate on child labour,” the paper reports. “She says she is involved with a children’s charity and wanted to highlight how ‘society madams’ employ child labour in their homes.”
The designer, who has helmed her label for only two years, also said of the boy model: “He works in a garage and wanted some work.” Apparently Aqeel also contributes to supporting him financially, and to his education, she also said.
Despite these explanations, critics see this spread as a sad play for publicity at best, and evidence of the fashion industry’s ongoing callousness when it comes to depictions of race at worst.
“I think this kind of shoot is not only highly offensive, but also shows the complete lack of artistry the photographer has,” says one user on the Facebook page for “Be My Slave.” “These serve only one purpose: to infuriate people, get them talking, and go viral. That’s what you have to do when you lack any type of originality or talent.”
“It’s facetious of the designer to claim that she was trying to stimulate a debate on child labour,” writes Salima Feerasta in her International Herald Tribune story. “The model wearing her clothes is clearly comfortable with her dominant position. She is not made up in a way that shows her to be the villain of the piece. The use of a dark skinned child in a shoot entitled ‘Be My Slave’ certainly reeks of racism, however much the designer may deny it.”
“Since when did slavery become an appropriate marketing strategy?” adds Julee Wilson of The Huffington Post. “We’re shocked — as anyone who lays eyes on these images should be.”
“Be My Slave” follows on the heels of another shocking series of photos published recently by the French magazine Numéro called “African Queen.” For that shoot, a white model was painted head-to-toe in dark brown make-up and dressed in ethnic garb. Many believe those behind the shoot should have hired a black model.
Other infamous racial missteps in fashion include the featuring of “Mammy” earrings by Dolce & Gabbana in its Spring 2013 collection, and Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld depicting President Obama resembling a servant in a drawing.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.