Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska is facing backlash on social media for a recent photoshoot which has been accused of glamorising war. Ukraine has been locked in a fierce war with Russia for five months now. According to an estimate, more than 15,000 people have lost their lives in the country while 45,000 have been wounded due to the relentless attacks by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces. Horrific and heartbreaking pictures of executions, women giving birth in underground shelters and people losing love, livelihood and their homes have brought focus to Ukrainians’ plight. But Olena Zelenska’s recent photoshoot has only sparked criticism. Why?
Shot by acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz, the pictures in question capture Ukraine’s first lady, in an attempt to paint a “portrait of bravery”. There she is, standing amidst the rubble, surrounded by armed guards, there she sits on stairs looking point-blank into the camera’s lens, with a tower of gunny bags stacked next to stately marble pillars- grace in times of chaos. There are also her pictures with her husband and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy- holding hands in his office. On paper, the idea seems great – the Zelenskyys have emerged to become one of the most popular political couples in the world, but what is it actually like for them to try and run a war-torn nation? Looking at the pictures though, one wonders – did they overdo it?
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“I don’t doubt for a second that Ms. Zelenska is doing precisely her job. But I find this Annie Leibovitz for Vogue photoshoot — the glamorisation of war (and it’s not the first time) — tone-deaf and dismaying. It’s a real war, not an Instagram war,” wrote one user. Another opined, “There are people who have lost everything and some are dying in the Ukraine but the president & first lady have time to “pose for romantic vogue photos”. Okay.”
Olena Zelenska Photoshoot: Making War Instagram-Worthy?
War cannot be glamorised. War cannot be Instagrammable. The pictures of Olena Zelenska dangerously teeter between coming across as a publicity stunt and completely missing the mark, if the intent was to capture the Ukrainian war from its First Couple’s perspective. However, our social media-oriented minds tend to focus more on pictures and less on text these days and therein lies the fault. When you read the entire Vogue interview, then the pictures do not jump out at you as attention-seeking. They fit in.
For instance, we come to know from the article that President Zelensky has not met his children for security reasons and for a while, Olena Zelenska wasn’t able to communicate with her husband and family. Thankfully, her children were close by. “I don’t even know how I would have survived these months if we had been apart,” the mother of two said in the interview. She is also part of an initiative to train mental-health practitioners and teach first-line responders, including teachers, pharmacists, social workers and police officers, to act as counsellors. and help those who are dealing with trauma brought on by the war. “More generally this initiative looks to improve mental health in the nation,” she added.
Also, the interview and the picture spread helps the story of Ukraine reach out to a readership that isn’t reading up about the war. Despite making headlines, it is possible that a chunk of our population might not want to consume news, especially about a war that has been going on for months. How do you catch its attention, if not in the language and with the medium that appeals to them the most pictures that are stunningly shot and yet don’t scream war? As one tweet pointed out, “OMG this photoshoot triggered russian assets so much. “How can you do Vogue photoshoots when there’s a war in your country?”. People still have a 20th-century mindset and have no idea how important communication is. Zelenska is literally doing her job – representing the country.”
As another user rightly pointed out, the spread continues the discourse on war, but just in a different setting in order to beat public saturation. “You all keep nagging about that everyone is getting tired of Ukraine blah blah blah. Well, we started using fashion magazines to speak to the world to reach other audiences.” The user further added, “You know what Ukrainian Vogue, Elle are writing about? Right, WAR. Sometimes, I think you all wish to see Ukrainians covered only in dust and blood to get the point.”
That is indeed a valid point. We all have had and continue to have our fair share of struggles these past two years. Pandemic, job cuts, new global health crisis, soaring inflation, polarisation… the list is endless. How many of us actually want to read up about a gruesome war? How many of us are not hurriedly scrolling past heartbreaking pictures from war zone because the trauma is just overwhelming? If these pictures urge us to read about Ukraine’s President, his wife and the country’s struggle to survive through a do-or-die situation, then has it actually missed the mark?
The views expressed are the author’s own.
Feature Image: Vogue