When I first read Benjamin Wallace's profile of Terry Richardson for New York magazine — which examines the photographer's behavior and wonders whether he's an artist or a predator, when the answer is quite obviously that he's both — it seemed fairly obvious to me that Richardson's extensive history of bad behavior had been glossed over.
As I mentioned in my original reaction to the profile, Wallace does reference the stories of several models who have come forward through the years. However, their accounts are truncated, hedged in by qualifications, and immensely overshadowed by the narrative of Terry-Richardson-The-Tortured-Artist. As many people noticed: for an article that purports to explore the demarcation between artist and predator, this one puts a lot of emphasis on the former category and not much on the latter.
Several of the women interviewed for the article shared this sentiment: within 24 hours of the article's publication, two of the models quoted in it came out in large publications — one on Buzzfeed, one in a Guardian column — to say that they felt they'd had their experiences misrepresented; another model, who wishes to remain anonymous, told us that she also felt her story hadn't been accurately portrayed. In addition, an anonymous source close to Richardson reached out to us to correct serious inaccuracies in the way that his relationship with his assistant, Alex Bolotow, was presented.
Meanwhile, Terry Richardson's cronies and employees loved it — the day it went up, his long-time defender and friend (and noted anti-feminist) Gavin McInnes tweeted, "Finally, a sane article about #TerryRichardson." This morning, Richardson's assistant/enabler Leslie Lessin Instagrammed an image of the cover with the caption "READ iT!!"
So several models interviewed for the piece felt their stories had been poorly represented, whereas the sycophantic denizens of TerryWorld applauded the portrayal.
With that in mind, here are the most glaring omissions, contradictions and oversights in the piece:
Wallace describes Alex Bolotow — who essentially functions as a character witness for Richardson — as his assistant. But depicting her in such relatively neutral terms ("his sexually liberated employee!") is both inaccurate and an understatement. She's not just one of Richardson's assistants — according to an anonymous source, she's been Richardson's girlfriend since February. And their intimate relationship really isn't much of a secret — in addition to all the blowjob photos, a quick Google search yields a picture of them together, her topless and hugging him, captioned "Artist Terry Richardson and his girlfriend Alex Bolotow," from 2004. Richardson also shot an entire fashion spread, starring her, for Purple Magazine in 2007. "Only [Terry] could shoot a girl like Alex, a star of the no-stars generation, a sweetheart of the 'experimental jet set'..." reads the expository text. There are some pretty desirable perks that come with putting up with Uncle Terry, it seems.
Furthermore, our source tells us that Richardson has several assistants, but Bolotow is the only one whom he's been sexually involved with; she's also the only one who participates in his photos as a subject. Clearly, Bolotow's relationship to Terry is far less neutral than the descriptor "an assistant to Richardson" implies.
Their obvious closeness doesn't prevent Wallace from contrasting Bolotow with the women who have come forward and "publicly blamed" Richardson. About three-quarters of the way through the piece, Wallace quotes Jamie Peck's 2010 account of her horrible experience with Richardson, which occurred when she was 19; shortly after, he mentions Charlotte Waters, the model who recently wrote about going into a dissociative state as Richardson jacked off on her face (while Leslie Lessin, of course, egged them on).
Immediately after that, Wallace notes that Bolotow "met Richardson the same night Jamie Peck first did, at the pinup-calendar casting." What a parallel! However, whereas Peck and Waters say they were traumatized by Richardson's behavior, Bolotow cheerfully recounts the many times she's gamely posed for photos whilst fellating Richardson. She says that doing so was "freeing" for her.
This prompts Wallace to compare her to the women who have "blamed" the photographer for his behavior:
[Bolotow] has little respect for women like Peck and Waters, who did things with Richardson and then later publicly blamed him for it. (In her first email to Richardson's studio inquiring about modeling opportunities, Waters wrote, "My name is charlotte. I'm 19 and a pervert"; she now says this was a "poor choice of words." As for Peck, she has repeatedly maintained that she engaged in sexual acts with Richardson only once, but there are photographs in Kibosh featuring her with different haircuts. "Jesus Christ, I have no explanation for that," she wrote me after I showed her the images. "I'd be scared this undermines my credibility but if anything I think it shows I was/am more traumatized by the experience than I thought.") "I think part of being a strong woman is owning the decisions that you've made in your life," Bolotow told me. "Trying to put the onus onto someone else for your own decisions is really cowardly and kind of dishonest."
This is a particularly smarmy and specious "a-ha!" moment — as though Waters identifying herself as a "pervert" in an email automatically disqualifies her from being sexually assaulted, or as though Peck wasn't really exploited because it seems to have happened more than once. As though Peck and Waters' experiences were at all similar to Bolotow's, who had worked with Richardson for years in a very intimate capacity and was well aware of what she'd be asked to do on set.
In an op-ed for the Guardian, Peck argues that Wallace's piece, as a whole, "treats the central question of Richardson's many critics – Was meaningful consent given for the sex acts in these images? – in a cursory fashion." Instead of focusing on the ways in which Richardson uses his position to exert power over inexperienced models — instead of exploring how Richardson, as an established and successful photographer, can easily advantage of a skewed power dynamic — Wallace introduces several desultory bits of model testimony, only to immediately discredit them. Never mind that sexual exploitation is a huge, insidious problem in the fashion industry, never mind that there are no sexual harassment laws in place to protect models: Wallace provides no immediate context.
"It isn't as though the author lacked for material: Wallace and I spoke for over an hour, and the only quote he used from me was in regard to the... images [in Kibosh]," says Peck. In other words, the only quote he used was the one he could call into question.
Another model interviewed for the profile, who wishes to remain anonymous, says this was her experience as well. On the record, she told Wallace that she had felt pressured into posing semi-nude even though she'd been given no previous indication that the shoot would involve any nudity. She also told him that, as Richardson shot her, he hurled a litany of degrading, misogynistic terms at her. That part of the story was edited out; in the version printed in the magazine, an unnamed Richardson source insists that she'd known all along that the shoot would be semi-nude, which our source maintains is entirely false.
Sena Cech, who told New York that she did a shoot with Richardson when she was 19, also feels that she was misrepresented. In Wallace's account of their interview, she laughingly described being asked to "grab [Terry's] dick and twist it and squeeze it really hard." She's also quoted as saying that she was offered another shoot afterwards but turned it down: "I was like, 'No way, this guy's too weird.'" Immediately after this, Wallace writes in a parenthetical aside, "A source close to Richardson insists that Cech was the instigator, and that she willingly returned after the casting to take sexual pictures."
In a statement to Buzzfeed after the New York mag piece went up online, Cech said that the experience was "nonconsensual... revolting and humiliating" and that the claim that she willingly returned later is "a flat-out lie." She adds:
I remember going home after the casting and crying hysterically, unable to tell my boyfriend why I was upset and unwilling to share with him that I had been coerced into this bizarre sex act at work. I believe that Richardson is using his connections and financial power in the industry to sexually harass and abuse vulnerable young women... By telling my story and setting the record straight, I hope that people will take the time to take this issue of sexual abuse of models more seriously. It's not about creating provocative art, and it's not all fun and games. Richardson clearly violated my rights.
A spokesperson from New York told Buzzfeed that they "respectfully disagree with Sena Cech's reading of the piece, which details the accusations against Terry Richardson at length, and treats them with the seriousness they deserve." If that's the case, why have so many dissatisfied sources come forward? And why did Richardson's camp approve of the piece so glowingly?
Wallace's profile does not deny that Terry Richardson has a history of alleged sexual misconduct, nor does it fail to address the claims. What it does fail to do is address them adequately: by (perhaps unwittingly) asking Richardson's girlfriend to speak on his behalf as an employee, by introducing model testimony only to quickly minimize it, by only briefly and belatedly bringing up "the ways in which coercion can be unspoken and situational," this profile skirts around the issue of predation while purporting to address it. It does exactly what the fashion industry has been doing for years: treats non-insiders as disposable in order to keep the powerful placated.
Image via New York magazine.