Monday, 29 March 2010

Photographers, Models and Exploitation

It must seem a bit rich to many people that a model has accused a photographer of exploitation, but it has happened.

The photographer Terry Richardson has blogged that he is really hurt to have been falsely accused of 'insensitivity and misconduct' by the model Rie Rasmussen.

The view of the man in the street would presumably be that models make the decision as to how far they will go in a photographic session and the photographer decides how far he will ask them to go. End of story … if the playing field was level.

But it rarely is. Many models at the beginning of their careers are young, insecure and possibly even virginal. Photographers are some of the very few men in fashion who might be straight. And certainly there are predators among them, wishing not just to sleep with models but also in their photographs to patronise and possibly debase them. And their allies in this are the people who should be protecting models: the agents, stylists and editors who work with them.

And I am sure that many do offer protection but, in the desperate efforts to be 'edgy' and shocking that most of these people seem to feel are essential for commercial success, others seem to inch closer to blatant titillation almost daily. Nudes on the covers of fashion and lifestyle magazines are the cheapest form of selling through sensationalism, and yet they succeed; simulated highly sexual scenarios – a genre introduced by Tom Ford at Gucci several years ago – do the same for top brands through their advertising campaigns.

Revealingly, the main culprits are the not-yet-household names (and probably never likely to be) in photography and the titles that will never have the general clout of Vogue, Harpers or Elle. In other words, the ones that try to keep afloat by inventing a type of 'cool' that speaks only to the young, few of whom can afford the magazines or the clothes they feature and would probably find few opportunities to wear them.

I often feel that fashion has become an incestuous maze of crazed and immature imaginations trying to grab attention by being naughty. I certainly know that the stylists, editors and photographers who create these pictures live their lives well removed from the things they promulgate. And that doesn't just give credibility to the accusations of exploitation; in the way it patronises, it robs anything they produce of any claims that could be made for its creative value.


  1. It's true that I (along with many, many other readers of magazines) am mostly desensitised to nudity. It's not even something I thought about much, until I heard of 15-year-old Lindsey Wixon, the campaign model for Miu Miu, who insisted (while she was being shot for the campain) on being provided with a bra to wear under a sheer top. Which made me think, what kind of people would expect a 15-year-old to wear a sheer shirt and no bra for a photograph?

    As for the Terry Richardson debacle, I'm horrified by the extent of the misogyny that so many commenters on the issue have displayed. The arguments trotted out range from 'well that's what his work is like, she knew what she was getting into' to 'she was asking for it' to, well, a lot of slurs against Ms Rasmussen and Ms Peck. The worst was the reasoning that, because a model uses her appearance and her body professionally, if things do happen to her it's only to be expected as they are just 'pieces of meat'.

    Whether Mr Richardson's models are agency-represented or just the young people he solicits to pose for him via his website, he's still bound to not sexually harass them, no matter how suggestive or titillating the pictures he takes turn out to be. Artistic merit (such as that may be) is not an excuse for what sounds like unprofessional behavior at best, and coercion at worst.

  2. This pretty much sums up my view too. I've always felt that the fashion part of fashion photography is often missing in a lot of these edgy sexualized (more like borderline pornographic) editorials found in smaller publications.

    Maybe it's just me, since I still like to look at fashion photography in the old fashion way as a mean to showcase how the clothes could be worn (or even ideally how I would wear them if I were taller and thinner and I'm guessing other women still do that too cause the industry would otherwise not exist). So sad to say, a Terry Richardson-esque shoot with three female models grabbing each other breasts in semi undressed state does nothing for me.

    However I have to admit to liking his celebrity profiles, maybe it's understood it's about personality (which he brings out well) but not the fashion; or maybe it's the absence of power imbalance when the subject and the photographer is equally famous, you know the resulting images aren't the product of one person's elaborate wet dream.

  3. Also: why would it seem rich that a young female model would be vulnerable to abuse by an older, powerful male photographer who controls whether or not she gets to work with him or not?

    I wonder if you've heard of the documentary 'Picture Me'. It was made by a successful (though not all that well-known) former model named Sara Ziff, and it's a decent attempt to lift the lid on what modelling is really like. A couple of the models interviewed also mentioned being on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the industry, and it was absolutely plain that their agencies do nothing to protect them. It's a sadly under-publicised film, though an article on it did emerge in the Guardian last year, when it was released.

  4. It's crude and savage, and it does happen. Tucked into this are a few drinks, some drugs, and the bewilderment of what very well may be a teenager on her own, parents beguiled and believing that there will be a chaperon.

    It's individuals not the lot of photographers; so many are warm, caring, funny and very respectful. My hope is that this zings new bells at the agencies and they assume their promised responsibility.

    I think it was Yves Saint Laurent who rocked the sexual in his perfume ad ... he was nude.

  5. Maybe the fashion industry wouldn't have this issue if it were subject to the same child labour laws as other industries? Or, simpler yet, perhaps the issue would be resolved if magazines and brands were to return to using women for their shoots rather than young girls. I don't think Terry Richardson would have the nerve to pull any of these moves on Naomie Campbell for instance. Just a thought.


    The Luxe Chronicles

  6. This is the only article on the issue that calls a spade a spade.Kudos to you for that.Even almost sided with the photographer! To say that the girls have options and nobody forces them is the lamest excuse to turn a blind eye to this menance of exploitation of young girls.These are young girls maybe missing school, mostly fuelled by a desperate need to make money at a young age, girls who feel that they have FEW options in front on them, add to that an old matured "powerful" man willing to abuse his position and it isn't hard enough to figure out the consequence. Its sad that the issue is almost brushed aside as a desperate accusation by a wannabe model! But as much as the issue is discussed, it won't change anything unless the man in questioned is punished!

    And maybe sexualised images are a good cover up for paucity of creativity! As the years pass, the design space is getting so overcrowded and with the limited working medium offered by fabrics how much more innovative can the fashion industry really get from the design perspective? So titillate when all else fails!

  7. This was a great read, the industry or even outsiders are not paying enough attention to this subject and that is very sad especially since for the most part this goes on with insecure teenagers who sometimes barely speak English and not older girls who are savvy enough to stand up for themselves. The fact that the pictures are sexualized does not mean the same most apply behind camera and being open about it does not make it ok.

  8. Fact: Richardson's work IS debasing to women, and to the very young girls who are used to construct his images. Any "fashion" images that rely on nudity, exposed sexuality, young and unsupervised girls ARE potentially VERY dangerous.

    Fact: magazines DO pay for and publish his work and/or this type of work facilitating the production of more of the same.

    Fact: people DO buy the magazines that feature this material, thereby supporting the whole food chain at the very very end of which are clueless children.

    If people buy a publication that features this type of "editorial" work, they are part of the problem.
    It's very upsetting and I cannot imagine how dense a person would have to be to not see the very very clear roles of power here.