Vice Editors Ax Suicide Fashion Spread in Uproar Over Taste

Some feminists and suicide experts say photos of literary suicides were 'sick.'

June 18, 2013, 1:38 PM

June 18, 2013— -- Vice, an online magazine known for its provocative take on the world, just unpublished a fashion photo spread called, "Last Words," which had images of models reenacting some of literature's most famous suicides.

The portraits, which appeared online Monday, drew sharp condemnation from suicide prevention experts and feminists as "sick, sick stuff" for glorifying death scenes while attempting to sell designer clothing.

The magazine editors apologized "to anyone who was hurt or offended."

The edgy, youth-oriented site included the photo spread in its 2013 Fiction Issue, one devoted to female writers, photographers, illustrators, painters, and other contributors. It featured Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker (who only attempted suicide), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, novelist Sanmao and beat poet Elise Cowen.

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The model portraying Plath kneels before a gas oven; Woolf wades into the water; Sanmao uses her tights to hang herself.

The images include cause and date of death, as well as captions for what each model is wearing: "Issa dress, Morgenthal Frederics glasses, Jenni Kayne shoes."

Jezebel columnist Jenna Sauers argued that, "These weren't fictional characters; these were real women, who lived and struggled and died, and to treat their lowest moments as fodder for a silly fashion spread is shameful and sad."

Sauers, a former model who wrote for the sex and fashion website under the pseudonym Tatiana, notes that "perhaps most distressing" was that one of the women portrayed, historian Iris Chang, only died in 2004 and leaves behind loved ones still grieving.

Still, that didn't prevent Jezebel from publishing the "shameful" photos, which still appear online.

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Vice editors, in a statement given to today, said that their fashion spreads are "always unconventional and approached with an art editorial point-of-view rather than a typical fashion photo-editorial one.

"Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading. 'Last Words' was created in this tradition and focused on the demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren't cut tragically short, especially at their own hands," they said.

Michael Peck, a forensic psychologist from Los Angeles who spent years working in suicide prevention, told that the glamorization of suicide can "make the vulnerable more vulnerable."

He suggested the photo spread was a "ludicrous depiction of a serious subject and what it does is dull the sensitivity of people to a serious subject."

"Kids see enough shooting movies so that eventually things like Columbine are like, 'Yeah, OK.' They see this horror on TV and in the movies for years and years and killing people is just another thing," he said. "The media tends to make suicide that way."

When a prominent celebrity takes his or her life, those who are "on the brink of struggling," can be pushed to suicidal behavior, according to Peck.

Jezebel commenters were split on the issue.

"If they were in a gallery and the artist was trying to convey something meaningful, then I wouldn't have a problem with the portraits," wrote one. "They make me wonder what was going through their minds when they made the choice to commit suicide and they make me want to cry because I've been there myself. But suicide to sell clothing? … no."

"I hope that the photographer chooses their venue more carefully in the future, because the photos themselves are quite beautiful in a morbid way," said another.

But others saw outrage over the photo spread as something more symptomatic of American's fear of depicting death.

"Yes, it is shocking, gaudy and tasteless," said Simon Critchley, a professor at New York City's New School, who taught a course on suicide.

"But there has been a long tradition depicting female suicides, to wit, Millais's 'Ophelia,' or, for a real and not fictive person, Frida Kahlo's 'The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.' The images do indeed scare the public because death has become taboo."

One of the Vice images by photographer Annabel Mehran of a woman on the ground after falling to her death is reminiscent of Kahlo's painting, according to Critchley's wife Jamieson Webster, co-author of their book, "Stay, Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine."

According to Webster, the book deals with the topics of death and suicide and the modern aversion to facing either one. In the Victorian era, parents posed with their dead children in farewell photographs.

"In the Victorian age, they were not afraid of death, but they were afraid of sexuality. Now we can put naked pictures all over the place but not this," she said of the Vice photo spread.

Webster, a psychologist, said this denial of the reality of death can lead to depression and even suicide.

"Typically depression, which used to be called melancholia, is about the failure to mourn loss," she said. "If we ban images of death, we are creating melancholia."