Superstorm Sandy was a natural disaster of unnatural brutality. An estimated $63 billion in damages later, one of the few silver linings was the bravery of the first responders who risked their lives to minimize death and destruction during the duration of the storm. For this reason, Vogue decided to pair those “stalwart souls” who “punched back” in the face of disaster with some glammed up models for an Annie Leibovitz-photographed shoot, which runs in the magazine’s February issue.
Senior editor Corey Seymour said the piece, titled “Storm Troupers,” aims to “shine attention on the people who helped bring the city through the hurricane.” It features supermodels Chanel Iman, Karlie Kloss, Liu Wen, Arizona Muse and others posing with individuals from six organizations in the city that effectively and fully mobilized during the storm: the New York Coast Guard, the National Guard’s 69th Infantry, Con Ed’s East River Generating Station, Bellevue Hospital, NYPD’s Special Operations Division and FDNY’s Far Rockaway house.
Leibovitz’s photography has as much movement and depth as one would expect from a seasoned pro tasked with capturing such dynamic subjects. The National Guardsmen seem to be in action passing supply boxes to one another. The Con Ed workers look grizzled by the arduous task of restoring power to the nation’s largest metropolitan region—as they should, considering the photographs were taken in November, less than a month after the storm. The infants at Bellevue Hospital barely register the presence of a camera crew; their life and health is itself a testament to the quick-thinking team that leapt to action after the hospital’s generators failed.
With all that emotional impact and artistry, it’s easy to ignore the models. So why were they in there in the first place? The piece was intended to celebrate real-life heroes, but are the models’ presence supposed to suggest that Oscar de la Renta’s spring collection is equally heroic? After all, members of the Coast Guard and the NYPD don’t report for work in designer duds; they have uniforms.
The magazine has a noble modus operandi. It actively participated in Sandy recovery fundraisers and, in general, is known to commission stories that merge news and fashion, often profiling powerful politicians such as First Lady Michelle Obama or former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. But the simple virtue of being a fashion magazine doesn’t mean that every story needs to be a story plus fashion, and the Sandy portfolio seems like one opportunity where a style magazine didn’t exactly need to give its angle on the story.
It’s reminiscent of the 2010 Vogue Italia spread that teased art or fashion or both out of that year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It was a lightning rod for controversy, but stirred up a debate on how or if fashion exploited a natural disaster. That feature, unlike this one, wasn’t at the scene of disaster, with people supposed to be delivering relief. Its artistic value was rooted in a critique of offshore drilling, the carelessness that led to the explosion and the models were grotesquely photographed in blackened dresses on “oiled” beaches. The Sandy photographs take a lighter edge, casting attention on the heroes rather than the tragedy, though this may be more of a function of there being no single oil-rich evil mastermind—just brutal weather patterns spurred by global warming.
Vogue‘s “Storm Troupers” does elevate the first responders to another realm of adulation. It casts them in a unique light and offers a sweet glimpse at Iman and Kloss making the firemen’s days. Ultimately though, if the models are mostly a visual afterthought, then perhaps it does give the heroes the undivided attention they deserve.