ziff b:wMarch 28, 2014

Last month, I spoke with Huffington Post Live about our efforts at the Model Alliance, and the conversation turned to several models’ allegations of sexual misconduct by the photographer Terry Richardson. Since the interview, yet another model has come forward with a disturbing claim against him, which she reported to the police.

Recently, Richardson denied the allegations against him in an open letter. However, rather than refute the specific allegations, he said that he has been “a target of revisionist history.” He went on to reframe the conversation by emphasizing the provocative nature of his aesthetic and the sexual imagery in his photos, which he compared to that of highly regarded artists. The suggestion was that his work, not his behavior, is the basis for controversy: “People will always have strong opinions about challenging images, and the dichotomy of sex is that it is both the most natural and universal of human behaviors and also one of the most sensitive and divisive.”

I have worked with Richardson a few times and I would not work with him again. His aesthetic and sexual imagery are beside the point. Indeed, the models who have made claims against him do not seem to be attacking his images. Rather, we take issue with his behavior, which, in our various experiences and in our opinion, was not only inappropriate and unprofessional, but also coercive, verbally and sexually abusive, and unsafe. There are many photographers who work in a truly collaborative and respectful way to create provocative images; some models complain that Richardson, on the other hand, shows complete disregard for personal and professional boundaries.

In his letter, Richardson continues that he “collaborated with consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work, and as is typical with any project, everyone signed releases.” This statement is misleading and does not reflect my and other models’ experiences. It also raises important points that apply not just to working with Richardson, but to how models should be treated at any casting or job: No model should be expected to pose nude or semi-nude without giving her informed prior consent, and no model should be asked to provide sexual favors at a casting or job. Presenting a model with a release to sign on the spot, and thereafter making unexpected, inappropriate demands of her, and photographing these exploits — as Richardson and his assistants are reported to have done — is exploitative. Consent to be photographed, even photographed nude, is not consent to be sexually assaulted. A release is permission to use a model’s image, not exploit her body.

When we formed the Model Alliance, we established Model Alliance Support, our discreet grievance reporting and advice service for our members. We encourage any model who has been the subject of unwanted sexual attention on the job, or who has experienced any other work-related problem, to contact us. We’re here to help.

Under federal law, independent contractors cannot sue for sexual harassment. Since the industry generally insists that models are independent contractors, not employees, most models are vulnerable to harassment with little recourse. This injustice will inevitably continue to be a problem in an industry where young models, including minors, are put into adult situations, and where nudity is common, but should not denote a holiday from maintaining a safe working environment. This must be addressed. Brands, magazines, and agencies that turn a blind eye should be held accountable. No one who works for a living should have to endure sexual harassment.

It’s encouraging that models are raising their voices to demand fair treatment on the job. The women who have spoken out publicly, at some risk to their own reputations and careers, are trying to prevent other young women from having to endure the same abuse, which is brave and admirable, and I thank them for that. If you have experienced abuse, you don’t have to make a public statement, but you should report your concerns so that this abuse does not continue.

Together, we can change our industry for the better.

In solidarity,

Sara Ziff

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