Refugee Chic or Outrageous?

November 24, 2015

Serene Akkawi


Norbert Baksa, a Hungarian professional freelance photographer, recently received harsh criticism after releasing the photos of a fashion shoot. This was no typical shoot. Baksa dressed models posing as refugees in high-end clothing.

In all of his twenty years of experience working with leading magazines, never has Baska created something of such great controversy. The backlash received for the shoot entitled “Der Migrant” was due to what many argued was a glamorous and mocking portrayal of an issue that is affecting millions.

The photos above show the young model Monika Jablonczky as a refugee wearing flowery dresses, Zara jumpsuits, boots, and heels attempting to cross the border while taking selfies with a Chanel phone. There are also shots where she is dressed in a scarf around her head and a policeman is pulling her near a barbed fence.

These photos bring up controversial topics of religion, culture, and beauty, but according to the artist, he wanted the viewers to simply see “a suffering woman who is also beautiful and, despite her situation, has some high quality pieces of outfit and a smartphone.”

Many article have responded to the controversy by focusing on the debate of whether his photos were insensitive or just trying to bring awareness to the issue. However, a larger issue is in how he “tried to raise awareness.” By entitling the shoot “Der Migrant,” he takes a clear stance on the issue and for those, like myself, who understand it to be a refugee crisis rather than a migrant issue, his shoot is alarming.

In a response posted on his website, Baksa writes the following: “To people who said I am stupid, I can only say they should examine the problem from different angles…It is very difficult to understand from the news coverage whether these people are indeed refugees or something else.”

Baksa shifts the blame of misunderstanding the crisis to the “news,” but there is a clear and significant difference between the term migrant and refugee. From the wise words of Queen Rania of Jordan, “migrants choose to go to another country because they want a better job or they want education, but refugees are running for their lives”.

The fact that 19 countries thus far have donated $1.8 billion to U.N. aid organizations to help refugees across the world stresses the severity of the crisis and its differentiation between that of migrants. It is cruel and unjust to try to depict this issue through this type of photo-shoot. Does Baksa not realize that 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives because of this conflict? Is he so ignorant to try to bring awareness to the crisis having a woman dressed as she is representing half of the Syrian population who have left their homes?

Awareness is not achieved in this form. Awareness should be a collection of photos where the true suffering of the refugees is clear. Awareness stems from placing yourself as the artist in the shoes of the refugees.

As an Arab who constantly hears the stories of refugees, I was offended by this work. However, I was looking for clarity in his response to the criticism. What did the scarf represent? Was he stereotyping all refuges to be Muslim? Did he try to remove religion from the equation with the removal of the scarf and have people understand the crisis from a human level? Why was beauty a key component of this shoot when the last thing on the mind of a refugee would be their brand named items? Instead of addressing such issues, he decided to simply remove the series from his website and state that he never meant to offend anybody.

Unfortunately, he did offend many, but not because he attracted the public’s attention to a problem through shocking images as many artists have done, but because he did so with a biased agenda that poorly–if at all–addresses the refugee crisis.