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Photo: A Fashionable Standoff in Crimea

Thomas Peter

There’s a nice mini-tradition of photos offering leg-eyed views of the world. Well, I can think of two at any rate: Elliott Erwitt’s classic of two pairs of legs—one canine, one human—and a little pet dog in full view; and Matt Stuart’s low-slung shot of a busy London street featuring the trousers and hurrying shoes of pedestrians and a pigeon gamely setting the pace. A gross discrepancy in power and height is rendered momentarily absurd—and thereby canceled out—by the democratic power of the lens. Something similar is going on here in Crimea.

Location: Perevalnoe, Ukraine Date: March 5, 2014 Photographer: Thomas Peter

We have become familiar with images from Ukraine of women baring their breasts in political protest. Here the opposite tactic seems to have been employed (and not only as a concession to what looks like pretty bleak weather): dressing up to the nines in entirely inappropriate footwear. Instead of the thing that most men are biologically programmed to want to see (women’s breasts) our gaze fastens on a traditional accoutrement of femininity: a pair of high-heeled shoes.

For feminists in the 1970s, the bra was the symbol of vestimentary oppression, but it might more sensibly have been high heels since you can play sports and wage war in a bra, while in heels you can only look seductive and totter from taxi to restaurant or photo shoot. As John Berger put it in his analysis of gender differences in art and society: “Men act and women appear.” These men are ready for action, while the women appear to be doing nothing but appearing. But appearance, this picture suggests, can be a form of action—potentially a more effective one than that recorded in other recent photographs from the same part of the world, of male soldiers confronting each other. Man-to-man stand-offs are a recipe for trouble, whereas the presence of women can be calming—in a provocative sort of way. And it looks to be working because, while the soldiers are functionally equipped for war in a cold climate, they seem to be losing the battle of the footwear. The one on the left doesn’t even have any feet! He seems to be shrinking, detumescing before our eyes, sinking into the ground, as though these leggy sorceresses possess the power to make the earth itself swallow up invaders as happened back in the region’s legendary past, before the coming of the tank rendered the mythic merely quaint.

Not that the picture makes it clear that we are seeing an act of resistance. Maybe these women just stepped out to take a look at the visiting soldier boys. In which case a kind of sexual and military détente has been achieved, with each side checking out the other. Either way, the eventual outcome of the situation is unclear. The camera is literally on the side of the women. If the distant highlands had been snow-covered, they would have been in formal alliance with the white fur of Ms. Stiletto’s booties. As it is, the camouflage-patterned hills are tacitly backing the troops.