Photographer says ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ wedding photo backlash should ‘wake people up’

Online critics have blasted a couple’s Handmaid’s Tale-themed wedding shoot as “tone-deaf” and the “new plantation wedding.” But the photographer behind the controversial image says it’s intended to “wake people up” about the “oppression” captured in the dystopian Hulu drama and the Margaret Atwood novel on which it’s based.

Shawn Van Daele’s image went viral after it was shared on Instagram for the wedding photography business he and husband Clint Russell run in Canada. Shot in Cambridge Mill, Ontario — a popular wedding destination and filming location for The Handmaid’s Tale — the image shows bride and groom Kendra and Torsten sharing a kiss in front of a gray slab wall. The backdrop, located in Cambridge Mill’s Mill Race Park, will be familiar to fans of the TV series as the “hanging wall,” where those who violate Gilead’s draconian laws are hung.

Van Daele confirms to Yahoo Lifestyle that the red-robed “handmaids” flanking the couple, who were wed on Sept. 27, were later Photoshopped into the image and are not actual bridesmaids, as some internet critics had speculated. (The bride and groom have taken their social media private and could not be reached for comment, though their photographer says the attention has been “overwhelming” and upsetting.)

While Van Daele says he was taken aback by the flood of outraged reactions to the shot, he tells Yahoo Lifestyle that he’s “happy” to raise awareness about the issues facing women, fellow members of the LGBTQ community and other minorities.

“It’s deeply personal, and a shame people are attacking without first learning,” he says.

A wedding portrait shot at the location for Gilead's gruesome Wall — with women in red robes digitally added — has sparked controversy. (Photo: Courtesy of Van Daele & Russell)

“The couple as well as ourselves are HUGE fans of the TV show (and obviously, first, the book),” he adds of the image’s inspiration. “The groom wanted photos on the ‘hanging wall,’ which is where we were taking their wedding photos; I joked about adding in some handmaids (since it seemed the natural thing to do since we were there ... I'm certain any ‘creative’ or photographer would have the exact same thoughts).”

He adds, “This wasn’t an intentional ‘Oh, let’s go do a Handmaid’s photoshoot.’ This is one photo in a series of thousands from their wedding day. It happened quickly in passing as a nod to the show and the venue, since it is filmed where they were married. It was intended mostly as a keepsake for them ... This wasn’t a Handmaid’s Tale-themed wedding. It was THEIR WEDDING DAY.”

He says that they were surprised that the photo went viral, but hopes that it will “wake people up to how they too contribute to the oppression and hatred that they're rightfully worked up over.”

Van Daele, who is also known tor the Drawing Hope project for children with serious medical conditions, also insists that he’s sensitive to what the show and its imagery represent.

“Anyone who would put out an image like this without understanding what it implies has bigger problems than upset people on social media,” he says. “I knew when creating the image that it would possibly upset people, but that's sort of the point ... to WAKE PEOPLE UP.

“We know we are all good, compassionate people who don’t feel the need to defend ourselves from the conclusions everyone is jumping to,” he continues. “We absolutely understand the gravity of the show’s message, which is why we love the show so much — as terrifyingly real as it is becoming more and more every day (specifically from what we see in Canada happening in the U.S.).”

Elisabeth Moss plays June in the Hulu drama. (Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

In a statement responding to the backlash, Van Daele and Russell refer to themselves “gender traitors” (a reference to the harsh treatment of LGBTQ individuals in Gilead) and call on critics to take action to fight oppression rather than fixate on a photograph.

“What’s sad is that everyone is REACTING exactly as expected — just like in Gilead — and missing the opportunity to think for themselves, to educate themselves and become ENGAGED ACTIVISTS instead of simply keyboard warriors. We’d love to see you out in the streets participating in women’s marches, supporting equal rights for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation and so many other important causes, instead of sitting here scrolling through Instagram, knee-jerking your way through comments.

“So you’re correct — it’s gross, disgusting, and a horrible reality that is rampantly becoming more ‘real’ in the world day by day – and comment by comment. There’s no more ‘us’ — only division and hatred, and no more curiosity to learn, to help, to actively become engaged in correcting humanity's breakdown instead of instantly ATTACKING. Congrats for adding to that today! WHY exactly are you offended? Have you asked yourself? And what are you actively doing about it IN THE REAL WORLD? We’re thrilled that this is starting a conversation! THANK YOU for being moved by an issue that deserves much, much more attention.

“And don’t forget — if this had been a happy couple surrounded by superheroes like Batman and Superman, you wouldn’t have even stopped scrolling to comment. June [the character played by Elisabeth Moss in the series] — along with every fighting handmaid or human in the midst of struggle and oppression — is the ultimate superhero.”

While the red robes and white bonnets featured on the show have been co-opted by many women’s rights activists, the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale has also ushered in “sexy” handmaid Halloween costumes — which were pulled last year following complaints — and controversial party themes. Just as Kylie Jenner got heat this summer for wearing a handmaid-inspired costume for a friend’s birthday party, criticism continues to stream in for the wedding shoot.

“The tone deafness of referencing a show where women are literal property in wedding photos is pretty damn bad,” wrote one commenter on the Van Daele & Russell Facebook page. “The tone deafness of taking photos of a hetero wedding in front of the wall that in the show is where they leave people who commit ‘crimes’ such as homosexuality to hang on display as a warning to others is astounding.”

“Everyone loves a good witch hunt,” says Van Daele. “Apparently today we are their witch.”

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