Fashion photography’s victims

Sarah Ziff’s new documentary, “Picture Me,” is sure to create controversy. A Guardian interview with her about the subject matter, the exploitation of young girls by fashion photographers, starts with a disturbing vignette:

A beautiful woman sits in front of a video camera. Her name is Sena Cech and she is a fashion model. Her tone is matter-of-fact, as though what she’s about to describe is commonplace in the industry in which she works. The scene: a casting with a photographer, one of the top names in his profession. Halfway through the meeting Cech is asked to strip. She does as instructed and takes off her clothes. Then the photographer starts undressing as well. “Baby – can you do something a little sexy,” he tells her. The photographer’s assistant, who is watching, eggs her on. What’s supposed to be the casting for a high-end fashion shoot turns into something more like an audition for a top-shelf magazine. The famous photographer demands to be touched sexually. “Sena – can you grab his cock and twist it real hard,” his assistant tells her. “He likes it when you squeeze it real hard and twist it.” -from “Sarah Ziff talks to Louise France about the world of teen modelling” in the June 7, 2009 Guardian

There’s worse described in the article… The interview has drawn some criticism running the gamut from concerns over vague and anonymous allegations (valid, perhaps, but concerns about libel and personal safety could explain this) to predictable, though spurious, remonstrations that the models chose their career knowing full well how sleazy and untoward its underbelly really is.

One commenter on New York Magazine’s coverage of the documentary wrote, “Oh crap. What a revelation. Models and actresses are hookers with higher pay and a demand that they do multi-level role-playing and fantasy with a bunch of sweaty-yanker photogs. Then if they hit it big they can get pregnant by a multi-million dollar contract job in the sports industry, or, if they must, they can marry a short producer or Wall Street type. Boy, this story hasn’t been done before.” Here’s a web forum where discussion, at times, boils down to a similar sentiment, though, thankfully, more clearheaded thinkers weigh in, as well.

I can understand (though not agree with) the foundations of the above argument: the fashion industry sells clothes by appeal to sexual fantasies, so anyone going into modeling should expect a level of sexual situations much greater than, say, an office job at a paper company. But any critique, such as the commenter’s, that claims models get what’s coming to them is akin to saying a victim of rape is “asking for it” by dressing or acting in a particular way. This is untenable and absurd thinking; the women described in the article are victims and the only people to blame are those who perpetrated and assisted the assaults.

The situations addressed by Ziff’s interview and documentary are nothing short of sexual exploitation, assault, and abuse. This cannot be excused or ignored.

(via Politics, Theory & Photography; can’t believe this hasn’t been getting more play)

Addendum: I should add that I have no experience with the fashion industry and can only take Sarah Ziff’s statements as they have been presented. There are likely many, many fine and upstanding photographers and agents involved in high-end fashion. But, if the reality behind even just a few of the glossy pictures has a hint of what Ziff’s documentary describes, it makes me sick to my stomach.

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