Tuesday, Vice Magazine released a suicide-themed fashion photo spread using legendary female writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf as inspiration.
Since then there has been public outcry, not only from feminist publications like Jezebel, but also from readers and the general public.
The spread depicted seven photos of seven female writers, almost all of whom took their own lives. The photos showed what one can only suspect to be what these women’s last moments looked like. A model posing as Virginia Woolf stands in a rushing river, holding a large rock. Another model acts as Sylvia Plath and sits in front of an open oven. The spread then cited the writers names, dates of birth and death, cause of death, and the clothes the models are wearing in the photos. It is true that the title “Last Words” doesn’t really fit the spread — which can still be found in the print issue — seeing as the women’s “last words” were not printed.
Vice, in a very unusual manner given its normal give-no-shits attitude, has removed the spread from the Internet and instead replaced it with this letter of apology.
It is also true that from an editorial standpoint, this spread furthers the notion that even in death, and even in death by one's own hand, women are only meant to look pretty and sell things.
However, solely from an artistic perspective, looking at only the photos and not the accompanying fashion credits, these photos are incredibly beautiful and speak volumes to the troubled female writers portrayed in them. Alone, these pictures bring light to mental illness and some of the great minds it has affected. They put a spotlight on the tragedy of suicide and if accompanied with different text could have been used to tell people who do suffer from mental illness or suicidal thoughts that it is okay to get help.
The question also remains, what would have happened if Vice had done the exact same spread, yet depicted great male writers who have committed suicide? Would the backlash be the same? Would there have been any backlash at all? Would Vice have removed the spread from its website, or left it there, much in the same way they have done with almost all of their other envelope-pushing content?
I’m torn. Although there is merit to these photos they are also damaging in many ways. It’s not fair to wrap mental illness in pretty clothes and call it art, but at least this spread has people talking about it.