"I don't like to exploit anybody. That's not my bag. Everyone has fun on my shoots," says fashion photographer Terry Richardson. But those who work with him continue to accuse him of sexual harassment, and they've told us their stories.
Last week, the Danish supermodel Rie Rasmussen confronted Richardson in Paris, and said he abuses his position of power within the industry to sexually harass young women with impunity. "They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves," said Rasmussen. "I told him, 'What you do is completely degrading to women. I hope you know you only fuck girls because you have a camera, lots of fashion contacts and get your pictures in Vogue.'"
Rather than defend himself, Richardson allegedly fled the scene, and instead called Rasmussen's agency to complain about her.
Two days ago, a sometime model named Jamie Peck wrote of an experience she had on a shoot with Richardson six years ago. When she said she wanted to keep her underwear on because she was menstruating, Peck says Richardson asked her to take out her tampon so he could play with it, and make "tampon tea." He insisted on being called "Uncle Terry," and during their shoot, Richardson unexpectedly stripped naked.
"Before I could say 'whoa, whoa, whoa!' dude was wearing only his tattoos and waggling the biggest dick I'd ever seen dangerously close to my unclothed person (granted, I hadn't seen very many yet)." In Peck's words, Richardson eventually "maneuvered" her over to a couch in his studio, where he "strongly suggested I touch his terrifying penis." When he ejaculated, one of his assistants gave Peck a towel.
Richardson also reportedly left his then-wife, former model Nikki Uberti, for Shalom Harlow when Uberti was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29.
Following the publication of Peck's allegations, other stories of Richardson's questionable behavior at work poured forth. I heard from modeling agency bookers and former bookers, photographers (many of whom told me that they are disgusted by Richardson in part because by propagating the idea of the fashion photographer/predator, he makes their jobs harder), fashion writers, magazine editors, models of all descriptions, stylists, and others in the industry. Because of Terry Richardson's extraordinary position of power, all of these people spoke to me anonymously, for fear of losing their own jobs or being blacklisted in an industry that hates to endure any overt challenge to its power structure.
One fashion insider says agencies "know full well Richardson's predatory behavior," but that he "is tolerated because the industry folk are just sheep. There are only a handful of photographers who have the power, a handful of editors who have the power, and a handful of clients who have the power. Everyone else just follows this small group of people." In a multi-billion-dollar industry where the product is subject to a high level of uncertainty — will this be the look of the season or will that? Will this trend take off or will that one? — people tend to cluster around the handful of people who are powerful enough to actually influence outcomes. Because Richardson carries the dual stamp of editorial approval of Anna Wintour and her French counterpart Carine Roitfeld, and because he also shoots for behemoth commercial clients like H&M, his entrenchment in the fashion pantheon is virtually complete. And that, says the source, makes him practically untouchable. "Those people in power, the women, need to take their responsibility for what happens to the girls because by booking him, they are tacitly giving their approval that whatever he does is OK."
Several people pointed out that while Richardson shoots frequently for major titles including American Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue Paris, British Vogue, i-D, V, and GQ, he has one curious, and high-profile, exception to his editorial credits: W magazine, where Richardson's services are apparently not in demand. Two current and former W staffers confirmed that Richardson has not worked with the magazine in a while; another individual thought the most recent instance of his work appearing in the magazine dated to a Mexico City-shot story, with model Esther de Jong, in the
November, 1996 issue.
We've asked W's art director, Dennis Freedman, why this is so; one source heard a rumor at the time that the ban on Richardson's work was instituted because Freedman took offense at a Richardson photo of a model posed with her head in an oven. Freedman has yet to comment — there's some other stuff going on at W this week — but we'll update if and when he does.
A story from 1999, indexed here, about a payment dispute Richardson had with the French label Paul & Joe, mentions that at the time, Kate Betts "seems to have put an end to [Richardson's] short-lived stint at Harper's Bazaar." Betts, who now writes for Time, was editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar from June, 1999, until June, 2001, and it was only under the reign of her successor, Glenda Bailey, that Richardson's work returned to the fore. (Richardson shot three covers for the magazine, counting subscriber covers, in 2009 alone.) Betts claimed not to recall why she didn't use Richardson during her tenure at Harper's Bazaar when I asked her about it yesterday afternoon. But there are clearly people in fashion on whom Richardson's particular charms are lost, and people who do not seek to deny, tolerate, or excuse what he does.
Meanwhile, these stories of Richardson's behavior speak for themselves:
I was a model in the late 90s in London, and I was booked on a Terry Richardson job for Arena Homme Plus. The shoot was at an amusement park, and I would estimate that there were 30 models in total [...] and we were told that all of us would be given an opportunity to shoot a cover try. Being familiar with Mr. Richardson's.....peccadillos, many of the models were eager to please; pleasing in this instance consisted primarily of pulling down pants, pulling up skirts, losing blouses, and a bit of finger sucking thrown in for good measure. It seemed painfully clear to me that the phantom lure of a cover try was sufficient reason for a handful of young women with waning career prospects to humiliate themselves in front of each other while Terry Richardson giggled, panted, said "That's hot," and pushed them further. During lunch, I approached him and asked him if he had any moral quandaries about exploiting the sad dreams of models who hadn't yet made it and probably never would. I asked him if he realized that they were enacting what they believed were his expectations and fantasies in order to gain his favor and hence gain a cover or a future booking. "I don't really think about that stuff," he told me. "I guess you're smarter than me."
We also heard from a woman who is friends with a stylist who used to work with Richardson. "She quit because of having to watch him sexually harrassing/abusing two (naked) teenage Eastern European models who didn't speak English — she didn't speak up and was so ashamed I don't think she did anymore styling for quite a while afterwards."
One woman in the industry said, "People should also be asking Terry why he doesn't shoot black girls." It's true that Richardson's extensive fashion work features almost exclusively white models. In fact, I struggled to find this single example of Richardson using a black model for a fashion story.
The following story comes from the only source who wrote to me from an anonymous e-mail address, and who has not responded to my follow-up questions. Does this cast doubt on her allegations? It's for you to decide. I present her story here because even if it cannot be verified, it is still, I believe, worth hearing. The writer says she was 19 at the time of her Richardson shoot, which was two years ago. She took a gig she understood to be "shooting artful nudes" because she'd lost her coffee shop job and needed the income:
He first asked me to play with myself, and just made really creepy demands.
He said it wasn't pornish because he was shooting still shots, and when I said that I felt like he was seeing if I was just dumb, he handed me the camera and said, "Fine you should [shoot] me playing with myself."
I mean his assistants were like, "Do you think all these celebrities would take pictures with him if it was porn?"
Then he said to take pictures of him touching me.
Eventually, he had me go down on him and took pictures of him coming on my face, which I had never done before, and when I went to the bathroom to clean up I could hear him and an assistant joking about it which is when I decided to never tell anyone.
The writer says she later called Richardson and asked for the pictures not to be used. "He said I had already been paid and that I had signed the release. I just didn't want anyone to know about what I'd done and what an idiot I was to let myself be used like that."
Sarah Hilker, who is now a freelance fine art model based in Los Angeles, was 17, and had just quit high school in order to break into modeling in New York City when she met Terry Richardson. Armed with "a perfect fake" ID, Hilker went to a party for the hipster pin-up website Suicide Girls, which was at the time planning the launch of a magazine. The party was in early 2004, and Richardson was the event photographer — in fact, it was the same event where Jamie Peck initially encountered Richardson. Hilker writes that she went to the bar where the party was being held with a friend:
My "friend" looked at me and actually said, "It's not who you know, it's who you blow!" His friend walked me over to this nearly invisible door to the backstage where the real party was going on. I slowly opened it and walked in. The entire room STOPPED and stared at me. That immediately made me uncomfortable. In one corner there was a literal pile of SG bras and panties and the other was a small table with model release forms. Some stranger immediately grabbed me and whisked me over to the panties pile meanwhile, another person came over to me and shoved a model release form in my face. They had no interest in seeing my I.D. or even asking me any questions. I was being pushed towards the front of the line to go shoot with their panties and a blank model release form in my hands. I hadn't even had time time get undressed to put them on.
I saw him shooting some obviously inebriated chick straddling a full naked erect guy with her SG panties pulled over to the side one hand on the camera; the other hand grabbing his cock over his pants. I'm like HOLY SHIT! I immediately backed away, ran through a bunch of drunk women, confused business people, and out the door like I had just had the worst nightmare imaginable.
[...]To this day, I think it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
The point of this investigation into Richardson's behavior — which, I hope, is only just beginning — isn't to lead some kind of crusade against the photographer, but to give a voice to the many, many people who, whatever their opinions of his work or his talent, object to the way he treats many of the women he works with — as potential receptacles for his dick. In a witch-hunt, the witch is the blameless one: but Richardson, like any predator, is a powerful individual who manipulates and victimizes the weak. When they speak out against him, people try to silence them. The power structure protects its own. But why should sexual harassment be tolerated? How is it "daring" or evidence of one's heightened sensitivity to the "creative" life to speak up for a wealthy member of the establishment with a client list longer than the hairs of his pedo-stache? Why is Richardson the untouchable one?
And, most importantly: Why do publications like American Vogue and companies like Prada, Gucci, and H&M think that a man who sees nothing wrong with interrupting the workday to manipulate his young models into performing sex acts on him, while his assistants look on, is worthy of continued patronage? What about that behavior is praiseworthy, Anna Wintour?
Do you have an experience with Terry Richardson to share? I'm listening.
Irin Carmon contributed to the reporting on this story;Noorain Khan helped with the photo research.
Photo of Terry Richardson and Eniko Mihalik via. Mihalik is pictured for illustrative purposes only.