In the fashion industry, Terry Richardson’s sexual harassment is the symptom, not the disease.
Terry Richardson is in the air again. The controversial photographer was recently accused of yet another incident of sexual harassment. In an anonymous post on Reddit in March (which has since been removed), former model Charlotte Waters detailed an experience she had with Richardson when she was 19, which began as a typical modeling shoot but quickly escalated into unwanted sexual advances and acts.
In a follow-up interview with Vocativ, Waters detailed just how far the shoot went: “He told me to perform oral sex on him. He started aggressively kissing me. I don’t even really remember what specific things were happening at that point, but he was directing everything. Like, ‘OK squeeze my balls,’ ‘OK, put my dick in your mouth,’ ‘OK, now kiss me.’ It wasn’t intimate. He also straddled me and started jerking off on my face.” In response to Waters’ claims, Richardson took to the Huffington Post to say he’d been the victim of an “emotionally-charged witch hunt.”
If it feels like you’ve heard this story before, it’s probably because you have. Richardson’s been accused of taking photo shoots too far — of making unwanted sexual advances on young models, and of using his status as a celebrity photographer to coerce young girls into doing things they’re not comfortable with — countless times before. Models Jamie Peck, Liskula Cohen, and Rie Rasmussen all have similar Richardson stories.
There’s no doubt that Richardson has a lot of power in the fashion industry. He’s worked with virtually every high-end fashion mag, and shot everyone from Lady Gaga to Oprah to President Obama (with whom he photographed himself shaking hands and giving his signature thumbs-up move). He is, arguably, the most recognizable photographer alive today, which in many ways compounds his ability to manipulate young models, and makes these allegations all the more horrifying. Richardson stands upon a pedestal that few in his industry ever reach, placing him as much in front of the camera alongside his famous friends like Jared Leto and Marc Jacobs as behind it. And it makes it all the more difficult to expect that someone so embedded within the culture would get anything more than a slap on the wrist for his actions. Richardson is, in all likelihood, here to stay.
And anyway, even if Terry Richardson were to disappear tomorrow in a cloud of smoke and thick-framed glasses, the fashion world would still have a Terry Richardson problem. Because Richardson isn’t the illness; he’s a symptom of a very sick industry that relies on the exploitation of young women’s bodies to not just sell products, but transmit the mythology of its own necessity.
Richardson doesn’t exist in a bubble. He exists within a fashion industry that makes millions of dollars on the backs — and fronts, and faces — of young women, many of whom are not properly equipped to handle the shocking demands that are placed upon them. Your average model has very little power over her image. She exists in the industry rubric to express the creative vision of the photographer, the creative director, or a brand’s marketing director. On a good day, this results in gorgeous, revelatory images. But on a bad day, we end up with exploitative shoots and disturbing, fucked-up imagery. Images that portray women in compromised, disempowered, dejected positions — all while they’re supposed to be selling us some impression of glamour or desire.
In most cases — in all except the upper echelons of the industry — models aren’t in a position to say that they’re uncomfortable with what’s going on, because it’s all a part of their job. Speak out, and they could be off the shoot and out of a paycheck, with a reputation for being difficult to work with. Models are paid to create a fantasy, after all.
When something goes wrong on a shoot — of Terry Richardson proportions or otherwise — they often have little recourse. Because models are considered independent contractors, they’re not able to unionize in the United States. That may be changing with the help of Sara Ziff and the Model Alliance, a nonprofit group the former model created to address labor issues within the modeling industry. One of the group’s first initiatives was to create a Models Bill of Rights, and offer advice on sexual harassment issues. “Sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are not part of the ‘creative process,’” advises the site. “They’re against the law. No model has to tolerate any sort of unwanted or inappropriate conduct. No model has to feel pressured to undress.”
But the reality is, as long as the industry is so weighted against models, as long as photographers continue to be able to make models’ careers, young girls and women will likely continue to do things they don’t want to do — both in front of and behind the camera. And as Terry Richardson’s celebrity continues to grow, he’ll find no shortage of young girls ready to jump at the chance to work with him. He’s not going away, and neither is fashion’s model problem.