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Controversy over Ukraine presidential couple's Vogue photoshoot

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By Sophia Khatsenkova  & Isabella Jewell
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and and his wife Olena Zelenska at the International Convention Centre Ukrainian House, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and and his wife Olena Zelenska at the International Convention Centre Ukrainian House, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.   -   Copyright  Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy's latest media appearance with first lady, Olena Zelenska, has split opinion, with many claiming the images shot for Vogue magazine undermine the severity of the war. 

Information has been a key weapon in Russia's war on Ukraine, with both sides running extensive media campaigns to garner support. 

The Ukrainian president has harnessed the power of social media throughout the war, posting regular selfie video updates on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. 

The striking photographs by legendary US photographer Annie Leibovitz are accompanied by a written feature, Portrait of Bravery: Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska.

Rachel Donadio's article reflects on the emotional toll of the war on Ukrainians, and Olena Zelenska's struggles to adapt to suddenly being thrust "centre stage in a tragedy".

However, some users took to Twitter to question the seriousness of the Ukrainian president, suggesting his battle to protect the country is a front.

US politicians have also weighed into the online debate, criticising the military aid sent to Ukraine. 

Lauren Boebert, a Republican politician and avid gun supporter, said that Zelenskyy had taken her country's citizens as "a bunch of suckers".

Others simply found the Vogue cover to be in poor taste, given the nature of the glossy high fashion magazine, compared to the gruelling reality of life for Ukrainians on the ground or those fleeing the worn-torn country. 

@mountainhighyogabyphil_1 I don't trust the guy, this just hit me the wrong way altogether #vogue#ukraine#photoshoot#zelensky♬ Lofi - Domknowz

Professor Anjana Susarla from Michigan State University has studied Zelenskyy's communication tactics over the past five months. She argues that his self-shot video messages were succeeding in rallying support for Ukraine. 

“It was someone we could relate to. He looks like any of us and sounds like any of us. That’s what made it so powerful," she said. "The authenticity and immediacy of his messaging were extremely effective in bringing in international support."

Speaking to Euronews, she added: "The contrast between 'I am one of you' versus suddenly 'also I have time to do these glamourous things'... I can see why that would be upsetting to people because suddenly the contrast is too jarring."

“The First Lady is dressed in fashionable clothes. And it’s difficult to connect this with the previous raw message that there’s a war going on," she continued.  

The photo series, however, does have its supporters. 

Many of them argue that Zelenskyy's role is to raise awareness about the war and keep coverage of Ukraine in the mainstream media, meaning a PR stunt like this one is important. 

On Twitter, one user posted that in times of war, "you use every single means of getting the word out", while another argued that "keeping Ukraine in the news is vital for his war effort".

Paul Booth, professor of political communications at Chicago's DePaul University believes that it is a good PR move. 

He told Euronews: "The trouble with anything that's PR-related, or anything that looks like it's being generated for attention, is that people won't be able to see through that and think that it's just a superficial appearance, which I don't think this was. 

"I think this was a meaningful moment in Zelenskyy's social media profile, he's using his celebrity for an important effect," he added

Executive editor of New Voice Ukraine, Nika Melkozerova, tweeted that the social media discourse about the Vogue shoot is in a patronising tone, and reveals a lack of understanding about the nature of war. 

"The fact that Ukrainians continue to live and fight at the same time is strange for those, who have never seen war, they see it like a movie," she said. "They think that joy is impossible during war and that real people fight only like they saw fighting in [the film Saving] Private Ryan."