Emina Melonic is the perfect person to reflect on the meaning of the Vogue cover shot of the Zelenskyys:
The war in Ukraine has been odd, to say the least. At the beginning, I was following it closely, especially since I saw the echoes of my own experience, namely in war-torn Bosnia. I saw innocent people dying and displaced out of their homes. But just like most things in this strange, post-everything world, wars appear to be fought differently than what I would expect.
Media influence, TikTok videos, and other existential simulations have become part of our everyday experiences, so it is not surprising that something so visceral, basic, and political as war would be immune from such treatment. Everything is just another opportunity for “showing off” and for one more step toward becoming a persona, and so I wasn’t surprised at all to see that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena have graced the cover of the October 2022 issue of Vogue. None other than Annie Leibovitz was the photographer for the series of shots that featured the couple in the official presidential building.
Olena is a beautiful woman, and Leibovitz has a great talent for making beautiful celebrities look even better. Olena is almost ethereal; paradoxically, an embodied angel that’s guiding her husband. At least, that’s the image that is being created and presented.
Olena especially stands out in a shot at Antonov airport, next to the steel remains of an aircraft, surrounded by female Ukrainian soldiers. Her hair flows perfectly as she tugs the collar of her coat, looking into the distance. In case you’re wondering, all of Olena’s clothes are designed by Ukrainian designers, which is important for Vogue readers to know.
As a photo shoot, it is all conceived quite well. It has that industrial/Soviet feel juxtaposed to the classical past look, which works so well with gray filters. Blondes generally look great with that kind of color scheme, and Olena’s presence really suits the entire scene that Leibovitz created. It’s a great example of war chic, which I am sure will become a style for years to come.
It’s a world in which simulation has been taken to another level. Are any of the people involved in this aware of the mixing of art, fashion, and war, and how odd and shameless it appears? It is a world where only aesthetics rule, where appearances trump reality.
Annie Leibovitz is an accomplished photographer and a true artist. She mostly photographs celebrities but throughout her career she has created shots of regular people and their often odd and difficult lives. She’s not a stranger to war either.
In 1993, Leibovitz found herself in Sarajevo (my hometown), at the time when the war was still raging. The result was a series of moving images from the war: a child’s bike on the ground, next to the large blood stain; a couple stealing a kiss while moving fast among people carrying water, trying to evade snipers; doctors in one of Sarajevan hospitals, trying to save a life of a man who has been torn by shrapnel; a group of children playing among burned out buildings and old Fiats and Yugos that have become only shells of steel; a theater troupe and a group of Bosnian intellectuals sitting a table, talking in a joyful manner despite the fact that the war is still going on.
These are powerful images, and they are a testament to Leibovitz’s talent and eye. Of her experience, she remarked, “…the concerns I had before I went to Sarajevo about what kinds of pictures I would take were erased by simply being there. There wasn’t time to worry about whether I was taking a portrait or some other kind of picture. Things happened too fast. You could only respond to them.”
Such is the experience of war. It becomes an exercise in survival, boredom, and small glimpses of joy, along with humor that keeps you sane during the days when you wonder if you will die.
I’m not sure why a fashion magazine is interested so much in politics, but then again, these days, it’s not just art that’s political–a statement that was overused in the 1960s. Everything, including human beings, is turned into an occasion for ideological positioning and, in this case, posturing.