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The Protest Lives in the Image: Viola Davis on First Cover Shot by a Black Photographer for Vanity Fair

Viola Davis BELatina Latinx Vanity Fair Cover
Photo Credit IG @VanityFair

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This month’s Vanity Fair cover, the first in its decade-long history to be shot by a Black photographer, is proof of that. Against a black and blue background, the actress Viola Davis appears wearing a taffeta MaxMara trench dress backwards, unbuttoned to expose her smooth back, not to show its beauty, but to reflect back an iconic photograph — that of an enslaved Black man whose back shows a savage crisscross of whipping scars. 

The cover manages to reclaim the African-American narrative in one shot and illustrate how fashion and the media have failed people of color for decades by making them almost invisible. That it took Vanity Fair 100 years to hire Dario Calmese, 38, is astonishing, if not unforgivable. Black women and Black photographers are a rarity at the magazine, cover or not. And this is endemic throughout the industry

Mr. Calmese joins a very short list of it-took-way-too-long firsts. In 2018, Tyler Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue (he photographed Beyoncé) and in 2019, Dana Scruggs was the first to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone in its 50-year history.

Yet, while so many brands rush to claim a public solidarity that tastes of opportunism, Mr. Calmese’s image does right by the Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.  

A regal Ms. Davis sits in the same position as the man in the 1863 portrait, known as “The Scourged Back,” one hand at his waist, turned closer to the camera, willing the viewer to come closer and witness the scars. Ms. Davis gazes left, soberly, as if saying that her scars are there too. 

Her MaxMara dress is rich indigo — the colour that was the currency of the slave trade — one length of cloth was traded for one human body. It envelopes her body beautifully, leaving her back exposed, but not vulnerable. Her hair is natural and her make-up minimal and undramatic — a move away from the usual glamor shots of so many covers.

It is a Black actress, shot by a Black photographer, embracing their narrative through the images of slavery. It is the story of Black America told as it should be.  

“For me, this cover is my protest,” Mr. Calmese said in a recent New York Times interview. “But not a protest in ‘Look at how bad you’ve been to me, and I’m angry, and I’m upset.’” What it was, he said, was a rewriting of a narrative; taking ownership of it at last. 

“It’s about replacing the images that have been washing over all of us for centuries, telling us who we are and our position in the world and our value,” he said. 

In her July-August editor’s letter, Vanity Fair editor Radhika Jones writes that to the best of her knowledge it is the first Vanity Fair cover shot by a Black photographer. Ms. Jones, of Indian descent, added that in the 35 years before she was named editor, Vanity Fair featured only 17 solo covers featuring Black people. 

A quote from Ms. Davis is prominent below the Vanity Fair logo: “My entire life has been a protest.”

“They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers,” she says in the Vanity Fair article. “But that’s a lot of magazines, that’s a lot of beauty campaigns. There’s a real absence of dark-skinned Black women.”

“When you couple that with what’s going on in our culture, and how they treat Black women, you have a double whammy. You are putting us in a complete cloak of invisibility,” she said.

André Leon Talley, the former Vogue editor-at-large and a friend of Mr. Calmese, gave the latter advice. Mr. Talley recently published a memoir chronicling the experience of being one of the only prominent Black men in fashion’s highest echelons. 

“Soar and believe in your dream. I’m so excited for you and Vanity Fair,” he said. “You will be creating history.”

Fashion communicates through powerful imagery and visual language. Fashion stories discuss broader issues and set the norms socially and politically. Brands, the media and fashion can declare solidarity with the BLM movement all they want, but the real proof is in covers like Calmese’s for Vanity Fair. As of this writing, few, if any examples in fashion or media can compare with the power of Mr. Calmese images.

The late and controversial editor of Vogue Italia, Franca Sozzani, said that “fashion isn’t really about clothes. It’s about life.” The protest lives in the image, not in the fashion kings and queens of yesterday.