Portrait of controversy
By Iris Edén Santiago
Special to The Star
An engaging cover story in Vogue magazine has sparked a huge debate around the globe. Pictures of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy with first lady Olena Zelenska have proven too controversial in a world apparently more comfortable with painful images of the country under siege.
The photoshoot for Vogue took place in Ukraine and was coordinated and captured on film by American award-winning photographer Annie Leibovitz. The powerful photographs are published alongside Rachel Donadio’s article “Portrait of Bravery: Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska.” In the interview, Zelenska shares details about her struggles, the inevitable toll of the war and heartbreaking experiences in the war-torn country.
As unorthodox as the interview may seem to some, it really isn’t. Not for a modern leader like Zelenskyy, used to the spotlight, camera friendly and constantly on screens all over the world. The Ukrainian president, who has been tweeting and posting on social media since the first day of the military conflict, is a savvy strategist who understands the power of keeping his country in mainstream media outlets. Especially in the Western Hemisphere.
Nevertheless, the thought-provoking article has quickly become a subject for heated polemic. While supporters believe the story is a brilliant move to keep Ukraine in the news, others are up in arms. Detractors believe the article is frivolous, inappropriate and flat-out offensive. Some critics say it is a publicity stunt to romanticize the war while Ukrainians are grappling to survive.
Local strategists speak up
Respected professor and political strategist Jorge Colberg Toro confessed that at first he thought that a fashion shoot in the middle of a war zone where over 35,000 people have died -- including children and civilians -- didn’t seem wise or prudent. But after carefully reading the article, he believes it achieves two things.
“It puts into context the reality of an ongoing war, not only the burden upon its people, but upon the first family of the country under siege,” Colberg Toro said. He also said that “letting the world know her [Zelenska’s] role as first lady of Ukraine as well as her role as spokesperson for her country before the international community is smart.”
“My initial reaction questioning the story was because the fashion magazine doesn’t usually report on international politics,” he said. “In that sense and after putting things in perspective, I believe it is a well written human interest story that, having sparked so much interest and controversy, accomplished its purpose. … A new audience is interested, is reading about it and learning the story.”
Concluded Colberg Toro, “At the end, far from being offensive, [the story] enlightens us, and inspires meditation and solidarity with the people of Ukraine.”
Gonzalo Córdova, an award-winning humanist, historian and former history professor at the University of Puerto Rico, called the Vogue cover story “a bold move, new school.” He said that utilizing a high-profile fashion magazine to tell their story is a phenomenal strategy and symbolizes a new age in international politics at a time when world leaders must access new ways to achieve visibility and immediacy.
“This is not a fashion statement, this is a freedom statement, this is a cry for support,” Córdova said. “It may not be traditional, but it is very positive. They are fighting for their country; they need all the visibility they can get.”
Córdova, who noted that keeping Ukraine in the news is vital for Zelenskyy’s war tactics, said the article gives the war a face.
“It conveys a message of hope,” he said. “They are reaching higher levels; they need to tackle more financial sources, new opinion makers. Hardly frivolous, just genius, really.”
For political consultant and strategist Pedro Rivera Casiano, the interview and photos published by Vogue are incredibly interesting and not incompatible with the crisis they are dealing with at home.
“This is a message of confidence, of optimism,” he said. “They are struggling but keeping it together for the benefit of their country.”
“What is at stake at this point is much more than their country, it’s their dignity as a people, their resilience, their patriotism,” Rivera Casiano said. “They are sharing their sense of commitment, love and family with the world. This [the cover story] is a bold and clever move, one that should be applauded, celebrated.”
Fashion connoisseur, professor and designer Lisa Thon loves the spread in Vogue. She said both the president and first lady have been the face of the war and they clearly know how to get attention for the crisis in Ukraine.
“But this is not a glamour shoot,” Thon said. “They made the best of an opportunity that came their way. [Vogue] is a platform read by millions of powerful people. It was well thought out and worked with respect for what it is, international exposition.”
“Portrait of Bravery: Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska” is available in Vogue’s digital edition. It will be published in the October edition of the print magazine.