Brown People Go With Everything or How J. Crew Sorta Got It Wrong

The politics of traveling abroad while not being a douche about it.
Publish date:
May 25, 2012
brown people as accessories, catalogues, colonialism

I've written before that I'm not a fan of exploitative vacation photography. In a foreign country, I rarely take pictures of people because it makes me feel icky.

Icky is seriously the best adjective I can come up with.

In Marrakech, I spied women in burqas and Chanel glasses perusing the cheap crap in the souks like everybody else. Families of three or more balancing precariously on crumbling motorcycles. And lithe shop boys in long white tunics calling out to passersby in French, then English, then Spanish.

With every turn, I wanted to take pictures, but that felt so on safari to me. Abridging or, even worse, cannibalizing their everyday for what? A pretty picture to show my friends on Facebook? That just seems so old world voyeuristic.

Which is why, when I got my latest J. Crew "style guide" in the mail yesterday, I wasn't entirely jazzed by the cover photo.

Naturally these kids are cute. And the white people behind them look very happy and not at all like they're going to kidnap, murder or otherwise violate these children. If I was walking past this photo as it was being snapped, I might think, "Oh nice. I hope they make sure to give each kid a dollar or two," because if you've ever traveled someplace faraway that's like an unwritten rule. Let the folks refuse or be scandalized or whatever, but offer anyway.

Thing is, I doubt J. Crew paid "their littlest local friends." And this picture along with one other one featuring Balinese people in traditional garb, isn't advertising someone's Instagram awesomeness, or greeting guests from the entryway. This picture is on the cover of the catalogue for clothes that pretty much defined a generation of (mostly) first worlders.

Something about that just seems kinda fucked up to me. Earlier this week I sorta bummed around Puerto Rico -- from San Juan, Old San Juan, Farjado, Vieques and back. I saw a lot of achingly pretty stuff, including people.

One morning we walked out of our hotel, which teetered above a dance club on a cobble stone alley that passed for a street, and almost tripped over a drunken man sleeping it off on our stoop. He was tanned like someone who wears their work on their skin is tanned. He had on beat-up leather sandals, dirty jeans and a scrubby fisherman's beard.

Napping as he was, it made for a powerful image. But when my boyfriend raised his arm to capture it, I said we shouldn't. It just seemed wrong to me.

Granted I really hate when touristas assume the lives of the people in the country they'd touched down in are horrendous and sad and poor. Or the flipside of that, that folks who live in "paradise" are inherently happy and smiley and accommodating.

On their website, J. Crew, has a whole "Bali adventure" section that reaches far beyond what the two picture of local people in the catalog could do. They've got tidbits about the history, culture and flavor of the place that makes you wanna go visit. That I love.

But what I'll always not love is the idea that people, like temples, bamboo trees and golden marigolds, are backdrops. They, of course, are people. Maybe that J. Crew photo shoot was the times of their lives or maybe behind the smiles they're thinking, "Not this again..."

We'll never know unless we ask. And the problem with most voyeur vacation picture snapping is that no one ever does.