When Kamala Harris’s Vogue Cover Photo Shoot Stirred ‘Whitewashing’ Controversy Online

When Kamala Harris’s Vogue Cover Photo Shoot Stirred ‘Whitewashing’ Controversy Online
Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Michael M. Santiago

When Vogue magazine shared images of Kamala Harris, their February 2021 cover star, a few days before she was sworn in as Vice President in January 2021, it sparked a debate online. The picture in question, a full-length photo taken in front of what looked to be a glossy pink silk drape, caught the attention of many critics. The picture looked to be lightened and toned and was described as a “washed-out mess of a cover” by one user.

“Kamala Harris is about as light-skinned as women of color come and Vogue still f**ked up her lighting,” they wrote on Twitter.

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Some people attacked the editor-in-chief of Vogue. “What a mess up,” wrote the New York Times contributor Wajahat Ali. “Anna Wintour must really not have Black friends and colleagues. I’ll shoot shots of VP Kamala Harris for free using my Samsung and I’m 100% confident it’ll turn out better than this Vogue cover.”

Olympic gymnast Simone Biles' skin tone was poorly lit in the US Vogue cover from August 2020 that featured Biles. “I hate the toning, I hate how predictable they are … and I super-hate that Vogue couldn’t be bothered to hire a black photographer,” tweeted Morrigan McCarthy, the national picture editor at the New York Times at the time.

Vogue has previously also been criticized for light-toning persons of color. But the issue is deeply entrenched in all forms of media, per Melina Matsoukas, the director of the film Queen & Slim, who said in 2019, “There’s a belief in the industry that black skin needs an incredible amount of light or a certain traditional way of lighting in order to be visible, and it’s just not true.”

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According to The Hollywood Reporter, Harris's team was "blindsided" when the magazine chose against using her preferred cover, which was one with her wearing a powder blue suit and a better light and tone. “Harris’s team was unaware that the cover photo had been switched until images leaked late Saturday, according to a person involved in the negotiations over how Harris would be featured on the cover,” says the article. “The person with knowledge of the negotiations said Harris’s team has expressed to Vogue its disappointment over the magazine’s decision.”

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In a letter to staff employees in 2020, Wintour expressed regret for “mistakes” in the publication of images and stories that were perceived as being disrespectful to Black persons. “Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate or give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers, and other creators,” Wintour wrote. “We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I want to take full responsibility for those mistakes.”

Although The New York Post was told by Vogue that it had not lightened Harris' complexion following the photo shoot, the assurance did not convince people of color who were calling out the magazine for historically poor decisions regarding photos. “The pic itself isn’t terrible as a pic. It’s just far, far below the standards of Vogue. They didn’t put thought into it. Like homework finished the morning it’s due,” the LGBTQ activist Charlotte Clymer tweeted.


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