While it is a regular practice in both the Pakistani fashion and entertainment industries to darken the complexion of models and actors due to an alleged shortage of dark-skinned individuals in the field, a fashion photographer brought something new, yet equally abhorrent, to the table, recreating vitiligo with makeup on a model with even skin tone.
Fashion photographer Najam Mahmood, who is also a nominee at this year’s Lux Style Awards, received backlash for his latest shoot in which he faked vitiligo on model Maham Ali. Seemingly a part of a portfolio shoot, the move drew instant criticism, with several commenters on the photographer’s Instagram page questioning the people involved in the shoot over why a model with the skin condition wasn’t used instead.
According to WebMD, vitiligo is a skin condition in which white patches develop on different areas of the skin due to a lack of melanin. The condition gives rise to a distinct appearance, which has recently attracted new interest in the field of fashion due to the acceptance and rise of models like Winnie Harlow, who flaunt the condition with pride.
The shoot, titled “Sky and the soul” features Ali against a faded blue background, with big curly hair, much like Harlow’s, and dark and light patches painted atop the model’s skin to give the impression of vitiligo.
A comment under the Instagram post read, “[I] like the photography, but you could have taken a vitiligo model [instead].” The make-up artist involved in the shoot, who works at the photographer’s studio, responded saying, “[I’m] sure there isn’t any vitiligo model available in Pakistan.” A reply to the MUA read, “Then they shouldn’t have faked it in the first place. They can’t [use] people’s struggle simply to make a shoot aesthetic. It’s rude and highly insensitive. So disappointed to see this.”
Another Instagram user criticised the photographer for faking the skin condition, writing about how it would have been acceptable and, in fact, beneficial, had they used a model with vitiligo. They commented, “This would have [been] justified and brought awareness if the model actually had vitiligo. People who actually have this condition didn’t face criticism, bullying and depression since their childhood for you to come here and draw this on a person who doesn’t even have the condition. This is simply pathetic and embarrassing. Do better!”
The official response from the photographer and their team attempted to explain the idea behind the shoot and highlight the “noble” reason behind the insensitive project. The first part of the statement tried to explain the reactions through the metaphor of a glass half empty or full. It said, “Historically, human beings have been reluctant to accept and assimilate with [their] physically and mentally challenged fellow beings, except some prudent minds. It’s all about perception to look at a half-filled water glass as half empty.”
It went on to champion the rights of individuals with vitiligo, deeming the criticism as negativity. “I believe that leucoderma patients have the same rights to life and liberty as available to any other person having white or black complexion. Instead of rejecting or disliking [them], such people should be given the confidence to face society with equal dignity. This is the sole noble reason behind my project. The rest of [the] endless negativity belongs to those keyboard warriors who are only interested in the half emptiness of the glass,” read the statement.
The response went on to claim that had they used an actual person with vitiligo, it would possibly be deemed humiliating on the part of the model. It said, “What if I had chosen a patient instead of a model and someone had said [that] you are making fun of such people by projecting their disease? The thing is, we have no option to [place] good words in someone’s mouth. What we can do is be clear about our goals.”
Offering further elaboration, the response stated that there is a lack of models with vitiligo in the industry. “We neither have any availability of vitiligo models nor usually [is] any patient with the disease willing to act as [the] model,” it continued.
The statement concluded with, “For heaven’s sake, [consider] the concept as [one] to help the patients rather than becoming a self-proclaimed caring soul. May we all be guided by truth and humanity beyond our fake beliefs coming out of negativity.”
The photographer and his team have also previously been accused of blackfacing. The images from the shoot in question are placed under a highlight on the photographer’s Instagram labelled "Chocolate series", with captions such as, “Now it’s time to wrap some delicious chocolate” over photos of the darkened model. The shoot drew clear ‘inspiration’ from African culture, with models in full blackface donning stacked gold neck rings. Another, more recent shoot, titled “A rising phoenix” had similar themes, with the models sporting afros and typical African dreadlocks.
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