Hey kids, how about a Terry Richardson profile? You're in luck! And in this version of the Terry Story, he's a lovable, propriety-challenging scamp. In actuality, however, Richardson is a serial sexual predator who uses his position of power to coerce young models into performing sex acts with/on him. And this is a problem that reaches far beyond the walls of Terry's studio.
This past weekend, the New York Times published a softball profile of the photographer (title: "The Naughty Knave of Fashion's Court"), written by Laura Holson, most notable in its cavalier treatment of a serious subject matter: allegations of sexual misconduct. How serious? My specific complaint is that he got naked and persuaded me to give him a handjob (or "perform a sex act," in Times euphemism-speak) while several adult employees of his egged me on, took photos, handed me a cum rag and then saw me out. I also told Holson that he groped my breast without asking.
Although I agreed to talk to Holson on the phone about my experiences with The World's Most Fucked Up Fashion Photographer, I was wary — in these "fair and balanced" accounts, the accuser often comes off unfavorably. But I hoped that by cooperating with her, I could provide these crucial details to the story, as I am to date one of just two people willing to go on the record non-anonymously about a negative encounter with Terry. (The other, Coco Rocha, is understandably tight-lipped, as she currently makes her living in the fashion world.) In 2010, Danish model Rie Rasmussen also confronted Richardson about his treatment of young women.
Unfortunately, hardly any specific complaints appear in the article. Instead, Holson focuses weirdly on the red herring of his nudity, which he confidently refutes:
One woman who did sign her name, Jamie Peck, said that Mr. Richardson disrobed during her second visit to his studio in 2004 when she was 19, and asked her to take nude photographs of him. In a recent interview, Ms. Peck, now 26, said she agreed, but didn't feel comfortable and later regretted her actions.
Mr. Richardson, who declined to discuss Ms. Peck's comments, said that while he may take his clothes off when working on personal projects like "Terryworld," he stays clothed while taking commercial and magazine shots. "It's not like I'm doing a professional shoot and it's like, ‘Excuse me, do you mind if I get naked when I take pictures because this is how I like to work,'" he said. "I'm not a nudist."
Yeah, well, nobody was accusing him of being one. (And unlike Terry, nudists aim to de-sexualize the naked human body.)
Aside from discussing my personal experience, my point was and is that this and much worse happens all the time, and nobody in a position of power seems to care. Needless to say, this didn't make it in, either. Instead, Holson went with this:
"If you are Barack Obama, you probably don't need to be worried," Ms. Peck said, referring to the 2007 Vibe photo Mr. Richardson shot of the president. Young models, though, she added, should "know what the boundaries are."
Remember what I said about being wary? I told Holson this with the caveat it should not be the model's responsibility to keep herself from being sexually harassed in the workplace.
The way the industry is currently structured, a model has zero recourse if a photographer is behaving inappropriately — other than to walk out, lose the job and damage a relationship, plus risk being reprimanded by her agency. Does that sound fair to you? Terry's behavior is emblematic of this, but he is by no means unique. I'm going to venture that most of the Times' readers are not fashion insiders, so a bit of critical background might be of use.
Then there's the way Holson makes Uncle Terry sound like a cute and quirky fashion world character, like Zooey Deschanel if she were an older, hornier man. The article is heavily weighted with quotes from people like Chloe Sevigny and Richardson's editor at Taschen Dian Hanson, who think the things he does are cool and adorable and not at all criminal. And yet, even when people praise him, their words are somewhat revealing. "Maybe it is manipulative, but when you are with him, you don't feel it," says Chloe Sevigny. Yes, Chloe. You don't feel it. That is the whole point of being manipulative. If people realize you're doing it, you've failed.
Even the people defending Terry do not deny the facts behind these allegations of misconduct. They only disagree with Terry's detractors in that they think his models are making a truly uncoerced choice. Of all the people who commented, Terry Richardson and his publicist are the only people willing to straight-up call those of us who've spoken out liars. Here's the hilariously wounded quote:
"Of course it was hurtful," he said. "Yes, I was upset. It's not nice for all these people to make up stuff about you. The flip side is, I just stopped reading it and I kept working."
Something here obviously doesn't add up. I'm also given pause by the fact that Terry shot for T Magazine, which is put out by the New York Times company.
Was there some sort of understanding in place here, or is it simply a failure of journalism? Either way, it doesn't look good. Holson, for her part, responded to my request for comment:
The profile was about Terry's whole career, not just one aspect of it. Within it, we were trying to explore how the fashion world perceives him, in spite of (or because of) his reputation. Complaints and opinions regarding his behavior were included at length, and we linked to Rie and Coco's public comments so readers could read their words for themselves. You, of course, were interviewed and we discussed your comments before publication. I could not find lawsuits filed against him and, if you know of any, please let me know. […] Ultimately, my feeling is that we should present the information we find to readers and let them decide what they think of him.
Fair enough, but I think the lack of context and specific details is a game-changer. Terry's actions do not exist in a vacuum, and as such, he shouldn't be presented in one. But from what I've seen so far, a sea change — for how models are treated, for the media's coverage of fashion — is not likely to happen any time soon. Not that we should stop trying.
Jamie Peck is a contributing editor at The Gloss.