What is Exploitation?

The latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is getting a lot of heat, and for good reason. The magazine’s attempt at making an international issue instead turned out to be a slew of photos using human beings as exotic props.

Sports Illustrated Photo

The two above photos were both taken in Guangxi, China. The contrast between white and color, East and West is clear. The models are not part of the surroundings and the native peoples are only part of the scenery. Jezebel has done an excellent job breaking down the photos and the way they objectify the people in them.

However, I was bothered by Jezebel lumping the Sports Illustrated photos with these images from a J. Crew catalog that came out last summer.

J. Crew catalog cover from June 2012
Inside shot of J. Crew catalog, June 2012

The J. Crew photos actually remind me a lot of photos I have taken over the years since I started living in China.

Me with students
Seth with Students
Me with Karen hill tribe girl in Thailand
I actually really like the J. Crew photos. The pictures look like the couple is actually on vacation in casual clothes as opposed to skimpy bikinis. The couple are behind the local people and interact with them. The woman has her hand on a child’s shoulder in both pictures. All the people in the pictures are close together and share the stage with the temple serving as background. The J. Crew photo team obviously spent more time making the clothes and models become part of the location instead of standing in contrast to it like the Sports Illustrated issue.
“Texas Maiden” – National Geographic
Ethiopian Woman – National Geographic

But what about the photos I (and the thousands of other teachers and tourists) have taken in other countries of local people? What about National Geographic magazine? It has built an empire on publishing photos of exotic peoples like the ones above. When does the genuine desire to share our world with each other become exploitation? Undoubtedly, the photographers for Sports Illustrated didn’t intend to publish a highly racist issue, but why are those photos unacceptable but the photos for J. Crew, National Geographic, and the photos of tourists OK? I don’t think I have a clear answer to that. There are certainly aspects of the Sports Illustrated pictures that are offensive, but not the intent. Some people also find the J. Crew images offensive, though I don’t. And I know there are some people who refuse to visit the Karen hill tribes of Thailand because they believe the camps are exploitative, but I found it hugely educational and am proud of the pictures I took there. Where does the line of exploitation begin and end? Unfortunately for Sports Illustrated, sometimes we can only know if we have crossed that line after we have done it.