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The Vice Squad: How 'Vice' magazine became the new teen bible

'Vice' magazine has been redefining style and pushing back the frontiers of taste for 15 years with images of nudity, death, drugs, war and more. Its creators say they're in the great tradition of satire – telling their readers what the mainstream media won't dare to. Really? Charlotte Philby reports on a new exhibition of its provocative photographs

If you are over 30 years old, chances are you won't have heard of Vice magazine. And you'd be forgiven. It's not stocked in any newsagent, and strict controls over which retailers can – and will – carry the free monthly edition, make this a seriously elusive publication. Yet with its bolshy prose and in-your-face-imagery, few who stumble across Vice forget it in a hurry. For an enterprise funded entirely by advertising, publishing articles about "Muslim Porn" or "Skinheads Against White People" could spell a quick demise. Yet major brands are falling over themselves for a place in Vice's pages, while nearly a million readers religiously hunt out their copy each month. So what exactly is it all about?

The magazine's UK editor Andy Capper tries to explain. "Everything we do at Vice has an economic and social context," he starts. "I guess we're like the Economist meets Rolling Stone, back in the day..." and soon trails off. "No, that's rubbish," he sighs. "That sounds really wanky." And with this, he has just identified one of the key criticisms of this voice of a generation; its intentionally provocative content can seem just a little pretentious. But Capper strongly defies this view. "We don't say things purely to be controversial," he retorts wearily: "We take the mick out of everybody because that's the way satire should be; everyone's a target."

Founded in Montreal, Canada, in 1994, the magazine started as a government-funded project, as part of a community-building welfare programme. Then known as the Voice of Montreal, it was originally run by three friends - Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes - and became the Voice before Vice was finally born. Now with its headquarters in New York and more than 900,000 readers across 22 countries, Vice is building an empire - complete with its own web-based television channel, fashion range, online store and record label.

Not least because of its expanding market, which detractors consider to be a shift away from its founding ideals, Vice is no stranger to criticism. Its self-congratulatory, cooler-than-thou attitude has long drawn derision. But despite an arguably gratuitous penchant for photos of vomiting teenagers and exploding cows, there is something to be said for some of the magazine's more controversial content. One special issue, entitled the Special Issue, was dedicated to work produced by people with disabilities. It featured the work of a group who had met at a summer camp specifically for people with special needs. Its members had made a documentary, overseen by group leader Arthur Bradford. Bradford explained how the collaboration with Vice came about.

"We don't want to offend people," he said. "We want people to realise there's nothing offensive about people with disabilities being funny and expressive. The mainstream media [are] too afraid we will offend their audience."

In this sense Vice has firmly established itself as a vehicle for news that other publications will not carry. "This is essentially a news magazine," Capper explains. "But we cover issues that would otherwise fall under the radar. We present news stories in a way that hooks our audience into subjects they wouldn't otherwise look into." The Iraq Issue is a fine example of Vice's refusal to conform to the usual take on current affairs. "We spent five years following a Baghdad-based heavy metal band," Capper reports, "from the start of the conflict, through to their relocation as refugees in Syria. And at the moment we've got someone with them in Turkey."

Adding to its growing portfolio, Vice has released a string of coffee-table books bringing together some of its most popular features: Vice Dos and Don'ts showcases wry commentaries on street fashion; the Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll is self-explanatory. And now, an exhibition features images from the latest venture, the Vice Photo Book.

"We are bored and disenchanted by what is served up to our generation," Capper says. And this is the antidote.