Simone Biles covers the August 2020 issue of Vogue. She seems pretty excited about it – here’s what she shared on Instagram:
So now it’s a bit tricky, because as you may have heard, there are a lot of people who are thrilled, like Simone, that she’s being featured on the cover of what some people still consider to the be the fashion bible, but also disappointed because she hasn’t been properly lit. Simone has yet to address the criticism of the magazine and how they’ve visually presented her. She has, however, in the interview spoken up about her career, her ambitions (Olympics 2021!), the years of sexual abuse that she and so many other girls experienced because Larry Nassar is a predator and was enabled by USA Gymnastics, her mental health, and how she and others have pushed through their trauma to come out the other side, empowered and more motivated than ever to use their platforms to protect future athletes. No matter how you feel about this photo shoot, then, please do take the time to read the piece and get to know Simone. We were supposed to be jacking ourselves up for Simone to defend her Olympic championship in Tokyo – and this is what her Vogue issue was timed for…until, of course, COVID-19 decided to f-ck things up.
We can, however, have multiple conversations at the same time. We can celebrate Simone for her achievements and for her courage and we can sympathise with the fact that a year delay for her, in her profession, as it is in so many others, is chaos. As noted in the Vogue article, athletic training programs are designed so that the athletes “peak” during competition. All of that was thrown away when the Olympics were postponed and it has to be reset now for next year; but remember, Simone will be 24 in 2021 and that’s a lot of wear-and-tear for a gymnast. She’ll be competing against people almost a decade younger, with fresher bodies. And on top of that, she’ll have to work with USA Gymnastics for another year, an organisation that let her and so many other athletes down, an organisation that she has openly challenged and confronted. As you can imagine, she’s carrying a lot of disappointment and anxiety – and she doesn’t sugarcoat it in this piece.
Which makes it even sh-ttier that Vogue is now being accused of not doing right by her with these photos. And it’s not like the critics are wrong. Their points are valid:
Simone Biles deserved better than Annie Leibovitz bad lighting. pic.twitter.com/I7SvmCmKJP— Britni Danielle (@BritniDWrites) July 10, 2020
simone biles shot by annie leibovitz, a professional photographer— allison (@allisonhopstad) July 10, 2020
gabrielle union shot by zaya wade, a child pic.twitter.com/qHOKWla4JJ
Simone was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, one of the most well-known photographers in the world. Leibovitz’s defenders are saying that this is her style, that she’s photographed Simone like a painting. And many have compared Annie’s portraits of Simone to a Klimt… only to be countered that highlight and contrast can still show up in a painting:
As experienced as Annie Leibovitz is, and even if Vogue meant well, meant to honour Simone Biles, the fact is, historically Black people aren’t often Vogue cover subjects – and since Black people, up until recently, don’t occupy this space, it means that the people who work in this space haven’t developed the skills to properly showcase Black people in this space. That also applies to film and television, when Black actors are often lit poorly because so many lighting directors and set designers don’t have the professional experience or even the actual hardware to do the job properly. And that’s why shows like Insecure and films like Moonlight are singled out. Because the people in front of and behind the camera who know what they’re doing.
Vogue is an institution. Institutions often do sh-t the same way, their way, and think it’s the only way. It’s a status quo operation. By extension, Annie Leibovitz has spent much of her career over the last two decades working with that system. This is why Simone Biles’s Vogue photos are so incongruous with who she is, what she means to people. Because the institution doesn’t seem to have made the attempt to update its practice to reflect any kind of change.