Model Adut Akech says she will use her platform for change, following a ‘racist’ photo blunder in an Australian magazine spread.
Model Adut Akech says she will continue to speak out about racism after a magazine published an interview with her but used a photo of another African-Australian model.
The 19-year-old spoke to Australia's WHO magazine about how the world views people of colour and refugees, having been born during the civil war in South Sudan and raised in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to Adelaide.
But alongside the interview, the magazine mistakenly used an image of Flavia Lazarus, a Ugandan-Australian model, and identified her as Akech, blaming the error on Melbourne Fashion Week's public relations agency, which provided images to the magazine of both models.
In the wake of the incident, Melbourne's Lord Mayor Sally Capp conceded the city could have been more pro-active after the photo mix-up.
“I absolutely accept we could have done something sooner but we're also very mindful of making sure that what we do aligns with Adut's wishes,” Ms Capp told reporters ahead of the fashion week launch.
Akech, who is the face of this year's Melbourne Fashion Week, said she initially contemplated staying quiet after seeing the double-page spread.
“It's something that really upset me, a lot of these things happen and sometimes they don't get as personal to me,” the 19-year-old told SBS News.
“I think I needed time to process my feelings and gather my thoughts.
“I tried to see, maybe could I just not say anything about it [the mix-up] - but I have to say something … because I want change.”
In an earlier Instagram post, the model said the mix-up would "not have happened to a white model".
"It goes to show that people are very ignorant and narrow-minded that they think every black girl or African people looks the same," she wrote.
Editor of Vogue Australia Edwina McCann commended the model on starting a “really important conversation” about diversity.
“I work in media too, we make mistakes and we’ve got to stand up and say ‘yep, we did’, but after that, we can challenge the way we think about things, and hopefully that’s what will come,” Ms McCann said.
“About two years ago, Emma Watson came in and guest-edited for me [at Vogue] and she really challenged us and said, ‘why aren’t your pages more diverse?’.
“As a result, we actually went to modelling agencies and said we actively want diverse models.
“I remember sitting at my desk and thinking, 'where have all these girls been? Why didn’t I see them? I’ve had to challenge those preconceptions myself'."
Antoinette Lattouf from news and current affairs not-for-profit Media Diversity Australia said the photo bungle was a symptom of unconscious bias.
"When your newsroom or media outlet is mono-cultural, mistakes can be made more frequently because by and large the people working there are from the same background, operate in the same social circles, have similar thoughts and similar connections,” Ms Lattouf told SBS News.
“These errors, even if they are honest errors, are more likely to go undetected.
“Change is happening but it’s incredibly slow and it’s not until there are these really embarrassing high-profile examples of mistakes that we see why a non-diverse newsroom is a problem.”
Akech’s stand has drawn a mixed reaction, with Channel Ten personality Kerri-Anne Kennerley defending the magazine.
“I think she’s just taking this way too far. If she thinks it’s all about racism … somebody made a mistake,” Ms Kennerley said on Studio Ten.
Fellow fashion week model Zac Collins-Widders is one of those backing Akech.
“I think it’s really important and it’s really brave what she’s done,” Collins-Widders told SBS News.
“It’s really important to call these things out because Australia does have a problem with representation and racism especially.
“I know it's been really important for me to see a lot of Indigenous people on the media, especially queer Indigenous people … I think we've still got a long way to go but we're getting there.”
Though Akech has graced international runways for designers such as Chanel, Dior and Prada, Melbourne Fashion Week will mark the teenager's first show in front of her family, including her six siblings.
"I can't wait to hit the runway and to see how excited my family is to finally see this moment," she said.
More than 150 events including runway shows, talks, films and exhibitions will be held during Melbourne Fashion Week, which runs until 5 September.