Image: Copyright of Theo Games Petrohilos 2013
So – Terry Richardson is once again making headlines for his well-documented inappropriate behaviour on shoots. I say ‘inappropriate’ but that’s completely the wrong word. ‘Inappropriate’ on a shoot would be, say, swigging Special Brew while greeting your knitwear client and then vomming on their cardi, or engaging in fisticuffs with the photographer’s assistant over the last almond croissant. ‘Inappropriate’ doesn’t cover (allegedly) encouraging a confused, young model to touch your penis and then having your blasé assistant pass her tissues to clean up whilst chuckling about it, as described by Jamie Peck.
“Arrest him!” I hear you cry. “Call him out! Boycott him!” many shout, shocked that this man could possibly be allowed to work with a constant stream of young, often foreign, girls. Well, yes, of course, it should be that simple. But agencies keep sending their girls to him. He keeps (allegedly) doing it to those girls. Vogue keep booking him. Their magazines sell. It’s fucked.
As a model, everyone I work with in the industry has some kind of nasty photographer story. One girl described being shown penis pictures – I mean, how does that contribute to getting a good shot? If that happened to me, a 28 year old woman, I’d be happy to say “I don’t really want to see your penis. Shall we get on with the next outfit?” and not be worried that the rest of my career may be ruined, let alone the ‘vibe’ of the shoot. But plenty of models – many of them young teens, are totally unequipped to know how to deal with such behaviour on shoots. They’ll go along with things like this, only to regret it after – women have been in a situation with a guy that them feeling disturbed? Perhaps the female in question was drunk, very young, or in a vulnerable state. They didn’t say ‘no’ outright, but they are still left feeling disempowered. I would liken this emotional state to that which many models have described upon leaving these shoots. A horrible confusion – ‘I never get naked, so why did I just do it on his shoot? Why do I now feel so bad? If I did it, does that mean I consented, so am I right to complain?’
Though many condemn Richardson’s (alleged) behaviour, numerous models and industry players have come forward to fervently defend him – the fuscia-follicled supermodel Charlotte Free launched a vitriolic twitter tirade, bemoaning the girls that go along with his pecadilloes on his shoots, and then whinge about it afterwards. (Shame. She seemed like one of us, with her hairy pits). Indeed – plenty are in on the whole Richardson shtick. He does incredibly sexual images that are bound to get instant attention – step forward perma-crotch-scratching hammer-licker extraordinaire, Miley Cyrus. We must have all seen Wrecking Ball, featuring the naked 20 year old humping and writhing upon and amongst demolition apparatus (I cannot watch this without imagining how uncomfortably abrasive this must feel on her undercarriage. Isn’t it cold? Doesn’t the chain chafe when the ball swings?) Anyhow, Richardson’s video reached millions of hits, instantly. And Miley’s Hannah Montana image has been determinedly, triumphantly razed via the kudos of working with such an industry giant.
Image: Copyright of Theo Games Petrohilos 2013
It’s unarguable – some people are in on it. Plenty of his subjects are savvy adults - Kate Upton, Rihanna, Dita - who have decided, in advance, what they are prepared to do to get the pictures. They’ll benefit from the exposure and prestige of working with him. Honestly - my opinion on his work is that he creates some shots that are imbued with fun and irreverence and clearly with a level of collaboration with many of his subjects. I can vouch for his influence throughout the industry – I’m always doing shoots inspired by his style (don’t worry, I have always had the benchmark ‘would my Gran approve?’ and, seeing as she grew up in a convent in India, there’s nothing too outré in my back catalogue).
So OK – some of his shoots are fine for all involved. But some allegations that have arisen from working with him are really disturbing. Worryingly, Jamie Peck described ‘zooming out’ whilst performing a sex act on Terry on one of his shoots, suggesting that she mentally detached herself as a coping mechanism. This is similar to how my friend felt when, at just 15, she modelled nude (for a different photographer). She was doing a test shoot (i.e. unpaid and unpublished) in his flat, when he asked her to get naked for some shots for his ‘personal project’. This is not something he had discussed with her agency, who would have checked with her first (honestly, they’re not all evil – plenty of agents do put their models first). Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she didn’t want to, that it was wrong – but she did it, in a strange suspension of fear and denial, scared to say no. She’s a well-educated and confident girl with a grounded upbringing, but for some reason, she couldn’t stand up for herself, unequipped to deal with such a disturbing scenario. She did it - but she felt upset and disorientated afterwards. Charlotte Free – was she giving her consent? Is she stupid to be moaning about it now? Or was she emotionally manipulated by a man who understood the dynamic of power that lay in his favour, and was able to create a bubble in which this behaviour was acceptable?
The common argument that ‘you know what you’re getting into if you’re going on a Terry shoot so why moan afterwards?’ is, to me, startlingly similar to common rape narratives. “Well why did you go home with him if you weren’t up for it?” “Why did you wear a short skirt if you didn’t want men to come onto you?” The fact is, Terry Richardson gets booked for some of the biggest jobs out there. Of course models will not turn down a shoot for Vogue, and why should we? We put in far too much groundwork that consists of slog, sweat, pain, disappointment and hunger to turn down such high profile work - not to mention not wanting to disappoint the agents and family members reliant on our success.
Over the course of my 13 year career, I have seen some photographers get in trouble, and even convicted for ‘inappropriate behaviour’ towards models. One photographer I was unfortunate enough to cast with – who basically offered my model friend money to sleep with her – has ended up in prison for rape. But I doubt Terry will get in serious trouble. The well-publicised seedier side of his work appears to be met with a wall of abashed, or perhaps self-denying, or perhaps uncaring silence from the big players of the fashion industry. Apart from the odd model or blog post, no one with actual power is calling him up on it. When model Rie Rasmussen confronted him face-to-face on his behaviour, he scuttled away like a scared little boy - bafflingly, his reaction to these accusations is that of an innocent man wronged – he’s put-out; upset – “I don’t like to exploit anybody. That’s not my bag. Everyone has fun on my shoots.” Personally, I intuitively feel that he believes himself when he says that. And while biggest magazines in the industry have his pictures on their covers, and while there are agents out there telling any models that complain to ‘suck it up’ as a shoot with him will help their careers, the lure of profit will overshadow any need for regulation. Perhaps their quiet acquiescence has helped create a bubble, where all morals and codes of conduct are suspended and everyone seems, in Terry’s world, to be playing along.