Opinion

J. Crew Offers a Tote-ally Useless Way to ‘Help’ Nepal

(screenshot via jcrew.com)
(screenshot via jcrew.com) (click to enlarge)

Just in time for your summer beach trip, J. Crew has released a limited-edition tote bag emblazoned with a Slurpee-shaded landscape and discreet sans serif lettering wishing “Love to Nepal.” The eye-catching infrared image, captured by New York–based photographer Sean Lynch, features Nepal’s Annapurna mountain range, according to the brand’s website. The fashion label states that it will donate 50% of the proceeds from the tote’s sales to the American Red Cross’s relief efforts in the recently earthquake-devastated country.

While this certainly isn’t the first time a brand has commodified a disaster, epidemic, or other charity cause to help boost sales and bolster buyers’ perceived virtue, what is particularly interesting about this case is Lynch’s image and the resemblance it bears to another contemporary photographer’s work: Richard Mosse. The Irish artist gained acclaim for his 2012 photo series Infra, which captures the war-torn Congolese landscape using a discontinued film, Kodak Aerochrome. Originally developed for wartime government surveillance since it made camouflage easy to spot, the film provides Mosse with a convenient war-related medium in addition to lending the photos their signature rubicund hue.

Richard Mosse, "Suspicious Minds" (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), digital c-print, 122 x 152 cm, edition of 2 (image courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery) (click to enlarge)
Richard Mosse, “Suspicious Minds” (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), digital c-print, 122 x 152 cm, edition of 2 (image courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Infrared photography is not a new technology, and its use isn’t the purview of any one photographer. Judging from Lynch’s Tumblr, he has been creating infrared images for at least as long as Mosse, and his Nepalese series precedes the country’s recent earthquakes by nearly two years. Unlike Mosse, whose infrared use is limited to the Congo, Lynch has captured numerous other ultraviolet vistas, ranging from New York’s Central Park to Utah’s national parks.

Yet what Lynch’s and Mosse’s photographs share, besides their candy-hued hills, is a fetishized landscape that challenges reality. Because infrared film reveals color wavelengths that the naked eye can’t detect, this style of photography implies that we can see more through the image than we otherwise could in person.

With regard to Mosse especially, the luscious infrared tones abstract the land they depict. Amidst the fantastic vegetation, the harsh realities of war become grotesquely real — guns appear flatly gray, soldiers’ uniforms are often a muddy brown, skulls remain staunchly bone white. It is the tension between seduction and abjection that imparts critical weight to Mosse’s photos.

Lynch’s Nepalese landscapes are less overtly political and instead seem largely aesthetically driven. They showcase breathtaking mountain landscapes devoid of people and quaint huts seemingly empty of inhabitants. Without the grossly human element that grounds Mosse’s images, Lynch’s infrared style fetishizes an already mythologized, underprivileged, non-Western country. The film obscures the economic realities of a struggling nation and reduces it to a visual experience ripe for Western audiences.

(screenshot via @jcrew/Instagram)
(screenshot via @jcrew/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

By plastering Lynch’s Annapurna vista on a canvas tote to marginally benefit victims of Nepal’s back-to-back earthquakes this spring, J. Crew is trying to capitalize on the abject sublime, which in this case fails to present anything more than an illusory candy land. The bag further objectifies a now devastated nation, reducing it to a palatable consumer item that gestures toward philanthropic awareness but ultimately just confirms what we already knew about summer style — bright colors are in.

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