Ontario Journalist, Writer, Photography & Filmmaker

The Rupi Kaur/Instagram Kerfuffle

If the goal was Internet ‘fame’, then objective achieved.

Rupi Kaur has been the ‘belle of the ball’ this past week with the provocative photo she posted to Instagram. She’s even featured in the Washington Post.

Miss Kaur is a student at the University of Waterloo who, for a course in ‘visual rhetoric’, decided to do a project on female menstruation. Her thesis is “to demystify and destigmatize the female body — to make viewers “realize these are just regular, normal processes,” nothing to reject or shame or shun.”

Visual rhetoric is the theory of how images communicate. That is, what does the viewer take from the image. Perhaps as compared to what the creator of the image intended the message to be.

There was apparently no reason for Miss Kaur to post images of the project to Instagram. That was a personal choice. Given her responses to Instagram and on her Tumblr blog, it seems fairly clear she did so with the intent to provoke and then to take advantage of the ensuing, and likely expected, result.

Whether the images are ‘art’ is something that all of us have to determine individually; the appreciation of art being entirely subjective. On the art issue, I’d say that the images are derivative and that the concept has been done, and done better. The single photo in Mike Brodie’s excellent Riding the Rails photo essay is far more powerful than Miss Kaur’s pictures. Jen Lewis‘ Beauty in Blood project was a much more artful take on the concept. There Will Be Blood, a photo essay by Vice, was significantly more provocative and compelling as well. Ingrid Berton-Moine’s Red is the Color (scroll to near the bottom of the page) series is a more powerful message.

As an exercise in visual rhetoric, and based on her stated hypothesis for the project, I’d have to judge her effort a failure.

Pretty much anyone viewing these images will be of an age to understand that menstruation is a normal part of female life. Few, in this era, would feel that menstruation is anything to he ashamed of, that women are stigmatized by the idea of menstruation or should be shunned for it. She is not challenging perception. She is not breaking down barriers. This project does little, if anything, to advance the idea of being female. It’s a crass and inarticulate attempt at garnering attention. And while she has attracted the attention she seems to have been seeking, she has not done anything to realise her original hypothesis. That minority who are not so enlightened are ignorant and will not be swayed by such an effort. Likely no argument in any form will sway them from their position. A good argument, a successful exercise in rhetoric – verbal or visual, is one that, at a minimum gives people who are opposed to a position pause and cause to think. This effort by Miss Kaur is unlikely to do that.

On the larger idea of ‘visual rhetoric’ while the name may be new, the concept is not. Artists, including photographers, have understood and dealt with the idea for generations. Ultimately what this points to is a failing on the part of academia in an attempt to come up with some new and novel construct of theory and philosophy to study. The insipidity, inanity and thought chasm of our educational system is thus laid bare.

The follow on issue of the media reaction illustrates the current and continuing trend in the media to sensationalize, and even create, news. The subheadline on the WaPo story, is “The photos were intended to show that Western society is uncomfortable with women’s bodies. Mission accomplished!” The takeaway here is that the policies of Instagram are a proxy for Western moral values. Instagram is certainly no authoritative arbiter of moral values. A teenager can post a selfie in her underwear on Instagram. The headline for an article on HuffPo proclaims “The Removal of Rupi Kaur’s Instagram Photos Shows How Terrified We Are of Periods”. Context aside, anyone not familiar with the story may think Miss Kaur is some sort of grammar snob by reading the headline. This is not a news story. It certainly doesn’t deserve the attention that supposedly high level publications like The Washington Post and National Post in Canada have accorded it. Reddit, Mashable… It could be expected to be writ large on outlets such as those. I was initially impressed that this story didn’t make it into the pages of The Old Gray Lady. That’s The New York Times. Then I did a search specifically for ‘Rupi Kaur New York Times’, and there it was. Sad.