This is an article that I really didn’t want to write. But, given the current events that have transpired, it is an article that I felt I had to write. For those of you who do not live in the United States, and, for those of you living in the U. S. that don’t pay attention to the news, let me briefly summarize a couple of news events that have surfaced relatively recently.
Around the beginning of October 2017, shocking allegations of sexual assault surfaced against prominent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Shocking, that is, to the general public. Apparently, Weinstein’s predatory behavior had been something of an open secret in Hollywood’s inner circle. In the past, accusations like these were hushed up. But the lid was blown off when prominent stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie shared their own stories of encounters with Weinstein.
Harvey Weinstein And Fallout In The Fashion Industry
The Weinstein situation soon had fallout in the fashion photography industry. On October 23, 2017, the Telegraph reported that Conde’ Nast, the publisher of several of the most prominent and well known fashion magazines, had instructed all its magazines to sever all ties with fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Even commissioned work which had already been shot but not yet published was to be axed, and replaced with something else. The reason, of course, was Richardson’s notorious reputation in the fashion industry akin to that of Weinstein’s reputation in Hollywood. Richardson’s reputation couldn’t even be characterized as an “open secret” as several models had publicly accused him of improprieties. While it does not appear that any new allegations of sexual misconduct with models have surfaced against Richardson, or “Uncle Terry” as Richardson likes to call himself, according to a New York Times report on October 27, 2017, Conde’ Nast apparently feared damage to their reputation from continued association with Richardson. Additionally, the Times suggested that Richardson’s antics “were just the tip of the iceberg.” In other words, the Times suggested that Conde’ Nast felt that it was better to take action against Richardson in order to create an appearance that they were “doing something,” lest allegations of impropriety against other well known photographers surface.
#MeToo Fallout In The World of SWP
So why am I writing about this on SWP? Well, fashion photography is part of the overall “Sexy Women Photography” industry. Online comments connected to the reporting of Conde’ Nast’s decision, suggest that the general public believes that Richardson’s behavior is commonplace in the “SWP” industry as a whole. And, unfortunately, their beliefs may be well founded. Shortly after Weinstein’s allegations came to light, along with the subsequent allegations against other celebrities and political figures, I started to see #metoo posts on Facebook from models that I had networked with. Needless to say, I was surprised at how many of them had a story about their own experiences of sexual harassment or assault at the hands of a photographer that they had worked with. Some even shared that they had more than one such experience.
What “Not Being An Asshole” Means
As I reflect back on these events, I happened to remember a conversation that I had with a couple of local figure models several years ago, shortly after I started to shoot art nudes. Back then, every spring there used to be a networking event in the city of Baltimore, MD. Photographers and models would meet at a local pub in one of the city’s waterfront districts to talk, look at photos, and sometimes to sneak away down a secluded back alley to take a few frames. As I was showing my portfolio to a couple of models that I had just met, Katlyn, an experienced model that appeared in a number of my portfolio images remarked, “I like working with you Joe. You’re not an asshole.” Needless to say, a few other photographers laughed and cracked a few jokes at my expense. But Sheba, another experienced model who was present, spoke up and said, “What Katlyn just said Joe is that you are a safe photographer to work with. So that’s not a negative comment about you at all.”
There are two things to take from this story. First, it suggests that models have been experiencing issues with sexual harassment for some time. Otherwise, there would have been no reason to label me as a “safe” photographer. Second, having a good reputation as a photographer is important, perhaps more so given the current climate about sexual improprieties. Traveling models do share information with each other about photographers, and it only takes one or two bad experiences to damage a reputation. In fact, at the same time that the Weinstein allegations came out, a couple of models in the U. S. won a defamation lawsuit against a photographer who sued them for sharing on Facebook a photographer “Black List” compiled by several traveling models. The photographer who sued was on this black list.
Building Trust. I am writing about this now to suggest that we, as sexy women photographers, need to be particularly careful about how we interact with the models on our shoots. Quite apart from legal issues regarding what constitutes sexual assault or harassment, one key to working with models is to always treat them with respect. Respect from the photographer breeds trust, and models who trust you are going to be more comfortable in front of the camera, and that trust will show in the final images.
Building trust starts from the first contact that you have with the model right through completion of the shoot. Make sure that all details of the shoot are discussed and agreed upon, including the level of nudity. Unexpectantly springing details about the shoot on your model is a sure way to blow trust even before you start. And, of course, if you fail to build that trust from the start, the model may interpret other things that happen in light of that lack of trust and label you “an asshole.”
Proper Etiquette. Besides being upfront and open in communicating expectations about the shoot, what else can you do to build trust? Simply being a gentleman is a good start. Most models don’t expect you to treat them like a princess, but they do expect you to be polite. Even though they are willing to pose nude, and sometimes pose in sexually provocative ways, they aren’t there on set for your sexual gratification. They aren’t there to date you. So avoid language on set that is sexually suggestive or contains sexual innuendos. You can give feedback to the model that she looks good, looks hot, looks sexy, etc without it getting graphic.
Ask permission to touch the models. Models understand that sometimes, depending on the pose, it might be quicker and easier for someone else to position their hair, etc. But it is always a good idea to ask first, so that they understand what your intention is. After you’ve worked with a model a number of times, and established a good rapport with the model, these strictures on touching and how you talk to the models might be able to be relaxed, but that is something that very much depends on the individual relationship that you’ve built, and the trust that you’ve established with each particular model. Don’t think that because you talk or act in a particular way with a model, with whom you’ve established a particular level of trust, that it is okay to do that with other models. Each model is different, and each one develops a sense of what they are comfortable with. You step over that line at your own risk.
Keep in mind that your reputation is a valuable asset. Build a good reputation, and models will strive to work with you. Do something to damage your reputation and you will have a hard time finding anyone willing to get in front of your lens. With the #MeToo movement gathering steam, we all have to be cognizant that models could interpret any questionable behavior in the worst possible light. We also have to be aware that behavior that might have been ignored in the past, might not be post #MeToo. Be aware that, without notice, we might find ourselves being accused of misbehavior for doing things that we never thought were improper. Keep in mind that, to some extent, “perception is reality.” In other words, behavior that could objectively be considered “not harassing” or “not offensive” could be interpreted by individual models as harassing or offensive. And false accusations can be as damaging to someone’s reputation as committing the actual offense. Photographers who act improperly give all of us a bad name, and even those of us who always try to be respectful could very well suffer from it. So, it is more important than ever before to “Not be an Asshole.”
One More Thing…
As this article was being prepared for publication, the New York Times published an article which detailed the steps being taken in the fashion industry to protect models from harassment and abuse.
You can read about it here:
- Condé Nast Crafts Rules to Protect Models From Harassment
- And for some more food for thoughts: Models Share Stories of Sexual Assault in the Fashion Industry
Since this article was published, Sekaa, a professional art nude model that I’ve worked with in the past, has read this article and offered me a couple comments.
Sekaa wrote: “There is a line that reads something like ‘It’s okay to say the model looks hot, looks sexy, etc.’ This, I actually disagree with. As a general rule of thumb, the comments should be focused on creating great images what works versus what doesn’t. Simply telling the model that she looks hot/sexy has a sexual energy to the comment, and even if they do look attractive, stating that you are attracted/amused generally does not qualify as professional.”
There are two things to glean from Sekaa’s comment:
- First, feedback comments sometimes need to be genre specific. Sekaa is an art nude model, not a glamour model. While the whole point of glamour is to sell the allure and sexiness of the model, that isn’t the case with artistic nudes. Therefore, if you make a comment along those lines as feedback, it’s almost certain that an art nude model will take it the wrong way.
- Second, even for glamour, keep the feedback about the pose, not the model. So, in a glamour shoot, a better phrasing might be that the model’s pose looks hot or sexy. That way you are not communicating that you, yourself are turned on.
Sekaa also commented about asking permission to touch the model, for example to fix her hair or the like.
Sekaa said: “I think photographers should ask photographers to move it herself first. We can be quite skilled at this. If for some reason the model fails to fix things sufficiently, then asking to help is much more warranted.”
On her Instagram and Tumblr feeds, Sekaa has posted some advice to models and photographers that warrant serious study. She has given us permission to reproduce it here.