Photographers Loral Amir and Gigi Ben Artzi’s disturbing project “Downtown Divas” features heroin-addicted Russian prostitutes wearing high-end designer fashion the likes of Alexander Wang, Louis Vuitton and Miu Miu. But before you jump to conclusions or form any opinions about the artists behind the project, or the women featured in these pictures, just spend a second looking beyond the obvious. Yes, they’re addicts and sex workers clothed in designer luxury, but what else do you see? If you look at the images with even an ounce of compassion, you won’t be able to avoid the traces of pain and heartbreak that has marked each woman like an autograph. Suddenly, the photographs become about more than just a shocking way to display designer clothing, but a visual essay on the human condition. The luxury labels hanging off their emaciated shoulders and scarred legs only serve to emphasize the stark contrast between an unavoidably painful reality, and the hidden promise of wealth, beauty, vacations and renovations that are weaved into every thread of designer fabric clinging to their bodies. Whatever Amir and Artzi’s actual intentions were for using high-end fashion in the project, one thing is clear: by doing so in this shoot they have made us look and acknowledge women who remain largely invisible in our culture – a culture that is too disgusted and uncomfortable by drug addiction and prostitution to acknowledge that there are real human beings involved in an ever unfolding tragedy.
In an interview with Bullet Media, Gigi described how the project first came about: ‘I came across one of the girls one night. She had the characteristics of a model, very thin, cool haircut… I thought it could be cool to photograph her like a model.’ The word “cool” hangs uncomfortably over that sentence. It’s an explanation with an uneasy air of exploitation about it, like, oh cool, you’re a heroin addicted prostitute, you’d be a perfect model! And so it’s not surprising to learn that critics were all over this shoot, condemning it for exploiting vulnerable women and glamorizing heroin addiction. But you’d have to be crazy to say that there’s anything glamorous about these images. Heart-wrenching? Yes. Thought-provoking? Definitely. But glamorous? Not even a little. Lorel and Gigi have been adamant that glamor was never their intention and that they strived only to “highlight reality.” And it’s hard to deny that, at first glance, the shape and physical proportions of the women seen here closely resemble those seen on most working fashion models. Perhaps part of the reason there is a negative gut reaction to this editorial is that some part of us realizes the fashion industry actually seeks out models that look this thin. We’re talking heroin chic in a very literal sense here.
The photographers confessed that they had trouble sleeping after the shoot wrapped, and found the whole experience very emotional. Most of the women featured in the series were found living under a bridge, and had attempted to get clean several times but failed. The shoot is a strange but powerful example of the way fashion can bring attention to issues the world at large would much rather ignore. Below, you can watch a short documentary the photographers created at the time of their shoot.