One of my favorite blogs recently posted about the outing of Terry Richardson as a total perv. As I read various media it seemed clear that reporters were on two sides, either they thought Richardson was a god and the models were not credible, or they sided with the models and felt outraged that Richardson is supported in his well known, predatory behavior. I was disturbed most profoundly by many of the responses from fellow photographers. At this point, I realized I needed to respond myself, see below
Should we as photographers– whose work shapes the way that the world is seen– focus exclusively on individual prerogative and financial success? I’ve read through many of the responses and put them into these positions:
- TR is a successful, famous photographer and thus he is above scrutiny.
- Models can’t be exploited because they are responsible for agreeing to the shoots and knowing who they are working with, based on the unstated belief that models, whether early or late in their career, have equal agency to famous photographers in negotiating shoots.
- TR is an addict and his disease is out of control
- Fashion is crazy. Sex is fun. Critics are just jealous of TR’s success.
- TR is a douche and models should be protected
But this is not only about Terry Richardson and Rie Rasmusse. There are structural paradigms that we all exist in and participate in as image makers. We don’t exist in a vacuum, simply creating our personal vision in some a-historical, completely individual way. And moreover, acting against the powerful dominant structure has consequences.
The ‘opportunity’ for young, beautiful women to play the role as sexual, available, and accessible is nothing unique to photography, it has a very long history, we need only look to the tradition of Western art. European oil painting for example has a reoccurring theme of naked women. The way the women are posed and represented in these century old paintings has much in common with the work of Richardson, albeit his is more overtly pornographic.
The same market rewards the Renaissance paintings of Tintoretto, Rubens and Bronzino as rewards Richardson. It is not the fact that the women are naked, it’s how they are naked. Always in submission to some viewer, who is a assumed to be male, they’re body turned towards the viewer to maximize his view. The woman’s face may be passive, or enthusiastic but it is always receptive.
As in Richardson’s work there is room for the viewer to insert himself into the fantasy. With Richardson, it always comes back to his penis, Richardson is an extreme example but we see this all around us such as in the latest Diesel campaign.
As image makers we should be critical of the content of the images themselves, not simply how much money is being made or if someone lied or told the truth in their complaint. These images, are part of a broad visual narrative that is being created on so many fronts which in turn shapes the way men and women see themselves and relate to each other.
Where is the critique of the images themselves? More than the degradation of an individual model, how do these images potentially degrade and demean young women who are then treated as sexual objects when they walk down the street, or perhaps more profoundly who see themselves as sexual objects as a direct result of what is reinforced in the marketing, advertising, music videos, and editorial images they see everywhere in our popular culture?
As to the honesty of the models about working with Terry, I’m surprised that anyone would not be aware of the lecherous side of the fashion industry or moreover that sexual harassment would be pervasive in an industry that is both so male dominated and so unregulated on an interpersonal level. The fashion industry is rife with abuse of power, and photography in general, in ironic contrast to corporate America, has few re-courses for dealing with sexual harassment or racism and homophobia, when it occurs. The power differences are so huge, and the ramifications for speaking out are very real. It’s not career building to challenge sexism on a photoshoot, particularly with someone more senior than yourself. Photographers like TR, in my experience are untouchable to the vulnerable models and assistants they take advantage of. No, with Rie Rasmusse, he simply miscalculated on a supermodel. He though he could get away with it, and this time he was wrong. Typically, people like him are not lewd with equals, but rather those they know they can manipulate. There is nothing shocking about this.
So my question to us, as photographers, is first,
Do we aknowledge that images have power to shape perception and affect the world?
And if so,
What images will we create?
I recognize that we are all limited by financial, personal, social constraints, but if we are only concerned about our individual fame and financial gain, why should anyone care to look at our pictures? Of what value is our ‘vision’?
Posted on Friday, March 19th 2010