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How Vogue robbed Kamala Harris of her roses

US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Picture: @voguemagazine/Twitter

US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Picture: @voguemagazine/Twitter

Published Jan 11, 2021


By Robin Givhan

The US’s first female vice president-elect has been photographed for the cover of February's Vogue magazine, and a vocal chorus on social media is displeased with the images.

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In the midst of a pandemic, in the aftermath of a riot at the Capitol and during the lead-up to a historic transfer of power that has become violent, what should have been a blissfully distracting, glossy celebration of a barrier-breaking moment has become a cause for disappointment. Not because of what was in the frame, but because of what was absent.

The cover did not give Kamala Harris due respect. It was overly familiar. It was a cover image that, in effect, called Harris by her first name without invitation.

She is captured in two portraits - one that's considered a digital cover and another that will be on newsstands and sent to subscribers.

The digital cover shows Harris looking directly into the camera dressed in a pale blue blazer and matching trousers by Michael Kors.

She has her arms folded across her chest, an American flag pin on her lapel and a genial smile on her face. It's very much the political portrait.

The backdrop is a medley of fabrics in shades of yellow from butter to saffron and quietly suggests optimism. Harris looks both traditionally authoritative and singularly pretty.

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It's the print cover, however, that has stirred the most conversation in part because it's the version that will become a souvenir, the one that might be saved for a grandchild.

In that image, Harris is wearing an espresso-coloured blazer by Donald Deal, black pants and Converse sneakers - a brand that she regularly wore while campaigning and that endeared her to some supporters.

Indeed, she looks more like a political candidate than someone who is soon to be the second highest ranking federal official in the land.

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The image has the feel of a test shot. Of a Polaroid.

That's not necessarily a flaw. The picture lacks the hyperperfection that is so often associated with fashion imagery. If one looks closely, it's possible to see an errant strand of hair, a laugh line.

The humanity hasn't been airbrushed away, and that gives it a patina of emotion.

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Her hands are folded at her waist and it's a far more casual image. She isn't draped in the typical accoutrements of politics. It's a flag-free zone. Instead, she looks approachable.

This informal picture, against a backdrop of pink and green fabric that alludes to the colours of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, lacks any of the signifiers of authority and grandeur.

Her history making rise is not telegraphed by a formal setting, a business suit or a confrontational stance. The only thing that announces the importance of the picture is the woman in it.

It also doesn't give the viewer any of the expected tropes about shattering barriers or reaching a mountain top.

Power isn't glamorised. Instead, it's humanised.

The picture reminds us that this incoming administration alone cannot save us. The people leading it are only human.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this picture. And in some ways, it's an audacious way of depicting this new political era and its break with the past.

The problem is that it's on the cover. The picture isn't juxtaposed with one of constituents or staff or family.

She's a woman alone in sneakers sharing space with the Vogue brand.

Both photographs were taken by Tyler Mitchell, who made fashion history when, in 2018, he became the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover with his portraits of Beyoncé.

The editor in charge of the Harris shoot, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, is also Black, as is Alexis Okeowo, the author of the accompanying story.

Harris styled herself. She chose her ensembles. But it was ultimately Vogue and its editor-in chief Anna Wintour that selected the cover.

And in using the more informal image for the print edition of the magazine, Vogue robbed Harris of her roses.

Despite its freighted history of racial insensitivity and recent accusations of disrespect and promises to be more inclusive, Vogue as an institution hasn't fully grasped the role that humility plays in finding the path forward.

A bit of awe would have served the magazine well in its cover decisions. Nothing about the cover said, "Wow."

And sometimes, that's all Black women want, an admiring and celebratory "wow" over what they have accomplished.

These are not official portraits, but neither are they glamour shots or journalistic ones. They exist in the in-between.

They mark history and capture the woman who breathes life into the title of vice president. But these pictures also help to craft a mythology - in this case, about a Black woman and power in America.

The story that Vogue was so eager to tell is the fact that this American daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother is now breathing in the most rarefied air of all.

The formalities - every last one of them - apply to her. Why the urge to dispense with them so quickly?

Vogue overstepped. It got too chummy too fast. Harris made history. She may be a different kind of vice president. But don't call her Kamala.

Related Topics:

Kamala Harris