A Twitter storm over a Vogue photo shoot of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and First Lady Olena Zelenska has highlighted the power and pitfalls of wartime images following Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine.
The digital cover featuring Zelenska and additional portraits of her against dramatic backdrops and with her husband were shot by the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, who travelled to Kyiv for the project. In the accompanying interview, the writer Rachel Donadio charts the development of Zelenska into a diplomat representing Ukraine as it staves off Russia’s assault. Donadio describes how Zelenska used shocking photographs to drive home the tragedy of the war when addressing the US Congress in a bid for more military support.
“She showed pictures of Ukrainian children who had been killed by Russian rockets, including a four-year-old with Down syndrome, before amping it up,” writes Donadio. “‘I’m asking for something I would never want to ask for: I am asking for weapons—weapons that would not be used to wage a war on somebody else’s land but to protect one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home.’”
In a Facebook post, the art historian Diana Klochko, compared Leibovitz’s cover image of Zelenska, who is seated on stairs, staring defiantly, with sandbags behind her, to portraits by the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Another controversial image shows Zelenska flanked by female soldiers against the background of a military airplane’s wreckage at Antonov Airport in Hostomel, the site of a pivotal battle at which Ukrainian forces beat Russian troops back from Kyiv. Some criticised her for looking too glamorous, but Jaanika Merilo, an advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, tweeted that it was her favourite image from the shoot.
Commentators who took issue with the Zelenskys using Vogue as a platform for Ukraine’s cause, include Lauren Boebert, a Republican Congresswoman from Colorado who is a vocal advocate for gun rights, a supporter of Donald Trump (she heckled President Joe Biden during his 2022 State of the Union address), and an opponent of military aid for Ukraine. “While we send Ukraine $60 billion in aid Zelensky is doing photoshoots for Vogue Magazine,“ she tweeted on 27 July. “These people think we are nothing but a bunch of suckers.”
The idea of money being funnelled to Zelensky, who is accused of corruption by opponents, gave rise to one of many memes that have resulted from the shoot, of him and Zelenska sitting at a table covered in cash.
The political analyst Ian Bremmer, the founder of Eurasia Group consultancy, took the Zelenskys to task for a public relations misstep. “Zelensky has done an extraordinary job in beating the Russians in information warfare,” he tweeted. “Vogue wartime photo shoot: bad idea.” While others praised them for their acumen in promoting Ukraine’s cause.
Kareem Rifai, a Syrian-Circassian pro-democracy activist based in Detroit, questioned the sanity of those who condemned the Vogue spread in contrast to the blasé reaction to Russian atrocities in Ukraine such has the Bucha massacre near Kyiv in March: “If you had a stronger reaction to the Zelensky photoshoot than to the images of people tied up and executed in Bucha please consider therapy, sincerely.” Rifai also contrasted it with lack of condemnation for a recent photo shoot of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his family. In 2012, Vogue pulled a flattering profile of Assad’s wife, Asma, which ran just as the state launched a crackdown on protests.
Images from the Second World War became fodder for the Twitter debates, with some posting comparable publicity shots of Winston and Clementine Churchill and others responding with false images of Hitler and Eva Braun on the cover of Vogue. Zelensky, who is Jewish, is accused by the Kremlin of leading a Nazi regime.
Vogue has also been criticised for racial discrimination in profiling the Zelensky’s and not indigenous and Black victims of oppression.
At the same time many Ukrainians are angry with both Western right-wing and leftist intellectuals and politicians for denying Ukrainians agency and telling them what to think and feel. “People judging [Zelenska’s] Vogue photos as ‘frivolous’ would probably be outraged that Ukrainians still go out, dress up, buy presents to kids, celebrate birthdays. If [Ukrainian] defenders on the frontline say life should continue, why some foreigners feel entitled to deny us this right?,” tweeted the journalist Olga Tokariuk.