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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Taking on Terry Richardson

In June of last year, I wrote a feature on writer/model Jenna Sauers and the infamous fashion photographer Terry Richardson. In light of the recent media attention around the sexualization of young girls (brought on by 10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau's already extensive career in modelling), I thought I would post this. Do photographers and the fashion industry sexualize young girls to the point of abuse? What measures should be in place to prevent vulnerable young girls from being pushed into compromising situations? How young is too young to pose nude?

Let me know what you think, and read on:

A controversy is swirling through internet blogs, magazines and news sources. At the centre of the storm is Jenna Sauers, the model-turned-writer who has reignited the debate over sexual exploitation in the fashion industry.

“I still work in the fashion industry in some respect,” she mused over Skype from her New York apartment.

But Sauers’ work is no longer showing off creative designs or walking a catwalk. Now she uses her English degree and her modeling experience to expose both the good and the bad of the fashion world on the online women’s magazine Jezebel.

Sauers’ story for the past few months has been Terry Richardson, a highly influential commercial, fashion and advertising photographer. His controversial nude photos and even more controversial treatment of his models have become subjects of debate.

Richardson’s stories have opened a pandora’s box of questions about the structures of the fashion world. In an industry where power is in the hands of the elite, Sauers said new voices are taking a stand against practices that exploit and mislead young women.

It began when supermodel Rie Rasmussen confronted Richardson at a party in Paris. According to New York magazine, she told the photographer, “What you do is completely degrading to women.”

After Sauers and other news sources covered the incident, models began writing in to online magazines, sharing their stories of how Richardson had used his notoriety to gain sexual favours from them. Models stripped down and performed sex acts for photos, in the hopes that Richardson would help get them high profile jobs. Sauers said she heard this from stylists, fashion writers, models, magazine editors, agency bookers and more.

Sauers kept many of her sources anonymous, but they are “not anonymous to me,” she said. Some of them were people whom she knew from her days in the industry, and their stories sounded all too familiar.

“I had heard of very similar stories,” she said. “I knew exactly what they were talking about.”

Yet despite the outcry from models, blogs and online magazines against Richardson’s methods, Vogue editor Anna Wintour still included him in the June 2010 issue as the photographer of supermodel Doutzen Kroes’ swimsuit spread.

“Fashion has a huge capacity to ignore the outside world and its judgements,” said Sauers.

In response to Vogue’s decision, Professor Susan Knabe of the Women’s Studies and Media, Information & Technoculture departments at the University of Western Ontario said that “there is a sense that fashion, like art, is above any kind of moral responsibility.”

Knabe said that power and sexual exploitation in the fashion industry is “an issue that’s been been dogging cultural images” since the 1950s and 60s.

“Our culture is becoming increasingly fascinated by the visual iconography of pornography,” said Knabe. The message to young women is that in order to be modern, liberated and powerful they must be sexually available. “I think those are really dangerous messages,” she said.

Sauers was cautious in talking about the issue. “It’s not like it’s entirely normal,” she said, referring to Richardson’s practices. But she also commented, “He’s not the only person who does it by any stretch.”

Sauers remembered being warned about Richardson and other unprofessional photographers from fellow models. But from the time she worked as a child model, through high-school and again after university, none of the people she worked for said anything to protect her from predatory clients.

“I don’t think any of the agencies I worked for talked with me about sexual harassment,” she said. When incidents do occur, Sauers said that “the industry lacks any appropriate structure to deal with it.”

To combat situations of abuse, Rosemarie Noble, owner of The Agency, a London modeling company, makes sure that her models bring a companion to photo shoots.
The power photographers hold is ultimately in the hands of the consumer, Noble said: “Magazines will put out what people will buy.”

Sauers disagrees. “It’s asking a lot of the consumer to take responsibility for choices made (by the fashion industry).” Ultimately she said she believes that fashion insiders themselves must take a stand against sexual exploitation.

“I feel that things have changed, at least a little bit,” Sauers said . She called the advent of fashion insider blogs a “democratization of information.” Online sites like Jezebel are having an impact, and bloggers with young readers are able to voice their opinions on controversies like Richardson’s.

One blogger who Sauers said has “no truck” for Richardson is 14-year old Tavi Gevinson of Chicago. Gevinson is the author of the popular style blog “the style rookie.” Sauers called Gevinson an “industry phenomenon,” who has been featured on the Teen Vogue website and has written for Pop Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar, impressive credentials for a junior high student.

Gevinson wrote about Richardson’s photos from her blog on May 11th, “This is where we are now?... I hope there aren’t people who view this as a strictly feminist issue- it’s a HUMAN issue.”

With the internet providing access to alternate opinions like Gevinson and the models who told their stories online, Sauers feels that “things have changed, at least a little bit.” In the future, “I would hope the industry would listen,” she said.

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