Model From Vice Suicide Shoot Speaks: 'I Was Uncomfortable'

Since Vice's now notorious fashion spread depicting female writers who committed suicide at their moments of death was published, a lot of questions have been raised about the intentions of the photographer, Annabel Mehran, the editor, Annette Lamothe-Ramos, and the magazine. I've reached out to Mehran and Lamothe-Ramos for comment. Vice has now pulled the images, which were widely criticized by blogs, readers, mental-health advocates, and anti-suicide organizations, from its Web site. They still appear in the magazine's current issue, which is dedicated to female writers. I spoke to one of the models in the spread, Paige Morgan, who portrayed the poet Elise Cowen.

Morgan says Vice did not tell her the true nature of the spread until she was already on the job, and she didn't know that the images would appear in the magazine without any references to the lives or works of the authors depicted.

Morgan is 26 and is working towards a degree in journalism. She grew up in New York, and after a brief stint with an agency in her teens, she left the industry. "I'm a little bit on the short side, model-wise," says Morgan (she is 5'7.5"), and when you're considered short, "you have to be extra vigilant that you fit the samples." Morgan found it increasingly difficult to do that, so she gave up the profession. Then, five years ago, a friend asked her to do a modeling job, and ever since she's worked full-time at her current size 8. Morgan is freelance and works without an agency, so her experience differs from agented models in that she deals directly with clients. But the dynamics of the industry are similar for both agented and un-agented "girls."

Morgan subscribes to several online casting referral services for acting and modeling jobs, and this May, one such service alerted her to a Vice job. The magazine wanted a model to portray the poet Elise Cowen, and Morgan fit the description. The notice mentioned the theme of the shoot was "female authors who have committed suicide" but Morgan assumed the images would be illustrative of the subjects' lives, not their deaths. There was no pay — most editorial jobs are unpaid — but Morgan knew and liked Cowen's work.

"I was actually initially pretty excited — I thought, of all the things I've been asked to be for work, a poet is one of the more interesting ones," says Morgan, who notes that an editorial dedicated to women writers is a bit of a departure for Vice, typically goes for more salacious fare. "I thought, 'Awesome! A Beat poet, this is going to be really amazing.' So I submitted for the job, and they were like, 'Can you come shoot tomorrow?'"

Morgan's photo, which depicted her as a dead body lying on the ground, turned out to be one of the most graphic images of Vice's story. (Because the existence of this photo, and how it came about, is at the heart of this story, that image from the spread is reproduced below.) Morgan saw that one of the longest comment discussions generated by our initial post about the spread concerned the responsibility of the models involved, and she wanted to address that question. I talked to Morgan about how she became involved in the shoot, what she knew about its themes and when, and how she feels about the criticism the images have elicited. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So the first you heard about this shoot was from a casting notice. Did it say that the photos were going to be graphic images of these writers committing suicide? Did it say anything about suicide at all?

It did mention that the theme was female writers that committed suicide — but it did not mention that they intended to do photographs of the actual acts of their deaths. [They didn't mention that] until I was in the car on the way to the location. We were in the car, and I was doing my chirpy little thing — 'cause I'd done my own hair and makeup for the shoot — and I was like, 'Oh, I have tools to touch up in my bag.' And they said, 'Oh, the shot we really need is just you lying on the ground, because we're doing it of the actual aftermath of her jumping out a window.'

What was your reaction? What went through your mind at that moment?

I was uncomfortable. I didn't necessarily know how that was going to come across. The photographer's work is quality, but I didn't know the editorial direction they were going to take with it. Unfortunately, I know very well that it's not my place or my job to ask, 'Well, what are you doing with this? Are you putting fashion credits on it? What's the title of this editorial going to be?' If they were to give me an answer at all, it would probably be, 'Get out.' At that point, even in New York City, the community is fairly small. And then it's going to be, 'She's difficult, she's unreliable, she showed up day of and walked out.'

This is probably not something that would ever be known unless I said it, but I've actually struggled with depression and mental illness my entire life. Elise and I live in the same neighborhood...And I guess I thought, well, if anything, at least it's someone who knows who she was, who understands where she was. And as anyone who has ever been through depression knows, it's not something you ever really cure, you manage it as best you can but it doesn't really go away. And maybe at some point in the future, I can make peace with it. Because she and I are probably looking at the exact same view out of our front windows.

Model From Vice Suicide Shoot Speaks: 'I Was Uncomfortable'

Would you feel differently about the shoot if it had been executed or presented in a different way, or in a different context?

If they had mentioned her writing — which I had a feeling they were going to, because the way it initially came across, I had a feeling this would be a photo accompanying an article or a feature. Or some other information about her. That would have been a lot better, had that happened. I didn't see it until everyone else did. And at that point I was just like, oh. They went that way.

How was the shoot organized? Did you work with any of the other models?

I did not meet any of the other models because the photos were shot on different locations and on different days. So the only people I met were Annabel and Annette. Who were both, as far as that goes, relatively pleasant. They weren't trying to make it a difficult day. Everything was very politely stated. I'm not going to say that they didn't maintain professionalism, because they did. They didn't tell me what is traditionally not my right to know.

What was the mood like on the day of the shoot? Was it respectful, was it light-hearted, how did the people from Vice behave?

It's not like everyone was just giggling and having a laugh. They were definitely polite. They were as respectful as someone is going to be. It's not like they lit a candle or said a prayer or anything like that, that's not something that you usually do when you're at work. But I didn't get the sense they were mocking her.

Did they at any point give you the opportunity to say no, given the nature of the shoot? It is pretty far outside the usual boundaries of fashion photography.

When I knew that it was the moment-of-death photo, we were in the car on the way to the location. And it wasn't stated in a way that was like, 'Are you okay with this?' It was a statement, not a question.

Technically, they didn't 'have' to ask your permission. But given the themes of the shoot, you could argue that Vice had that responsibility.

I mean, you could certainly argue it. I'm not faulting anyone for making that argument. However, it's very easy to armchair-quarterback and say, 'Well, that girl should have just walked off set,' and 'Oh, she can just do something else,' and 'She probably didn't even care, because models are just pretty, and they're all dumb as bags of hair.' That really isn't the case...When I'm aware of things, I do try to be responsible about my work. When a casting comes across my inbox or my desk and it's like, 'Gun manufacturer looking for sexy photos with assault weapons,' yes — I turn those sorts of things down.

Model From Vice Suicide Shoot Speaks: 'I Was Uncomfortable'

If you had known the nature of this shoot, and how it was going to be presented in its final form in the magazine, would you have taken the job?

If I had known that the focus was going to be primarily on the clothes, and it was going to run as more of a fashion story — no, probably not. If it had been that same or a similar image accompanying a retrospective of her life, or a discussion of her work — I might have still done it. The images in a different context might have read a lot better to a lot of people. And been less hurtful to a lot of people. But like I said, unfortunately models aren't given that much context.

It's a tricky subject. I mean, I personally feel like the model is the person who has just about the least responsibility for how a picture ends up looking. That's up to the photographer, the fashion editor, the magazine — those are the people who make the decisions that really define what a picture is and what it means. But, of course, in the end it's the model who becomes the face of it.

Yeah. You pose how you're told to pose, you wear what you're told to wear, you pose with who you're told to pose with — even in situations where someone is physically unsafe, or enduring sexual harassment, if you say, 'Stop, this is unsafe,' most often the person who bears the brunt of that is the model. The model is the person who has the least amount of power in the situation.

I don't disagree with that analysis of the dynamic between model and client, but at the same time, to play devil's advocate, what would you say to someone who would argue that that explanation holds water for a girl who's 15 years old and from, say, Lithuania, and in this country on a visa that's sponsored by an agency, and she knows that agency could very well drop her if she refuses a job for a high-profile magazine or walks off a set, and she may not speak English fluently or understand the nuances of what she's being asked to do — but it doesn't apply to someone in your situation. You're a model who is a little older, English is your first language, you're self-employed, you're well-educated, you're intelligent, and someone like you should feel empowered to refuse a job like this if you don't want to do it.

Well, no, I don't have an agency that is going to drop me the following day. However, by virtue of not having an agency, I feel like all it takes is one little slip-up — if I'm late to one job, or walk off one set, or if I complain about one thing. Because we're already seen as higher-risk talent. Unfortunately, in this industry, any sort of objection to a job is seen as you being 'difficult,' or you just purposefully creating 'drama.' No, I'm not 15. I don't have an agent. But there are other factors at work. And it's extremely easy to say, 'You should just walk, and find some other way to make money.' But I don't think we'd necessarily say that to anyone in a more regular job, faced with that sort of decision.

How does it feel to be associated now, by name, with a spread of this nature?

At this point, all I can do — my name is on it. And if people would like to ask me questions about it, or ask me why I did it, the best thing I can do is to answer them. Maybe I can clear up some misunderstandings of how a spread like this comes about, and who has agency in the series of decisions that led to it. 'Cause at this point, it's in print. I can't take it back.

I was hesitant in contacting you because I know that in print, I'm now admitting to having a history of depression, to having a history similar in certain ways to Elise's. And having been in a similar place to her. But considering the reaction, and how injured many people feel, and how angry some people are at the models in that spread, I feel like I can at least do this much.

Do you understand the reaction to the shoot? Why it has elicited so much criticism?

I can definitely see why people are upset. Especially because some of the people in that spread still have living relatives, living children. What for me might be a reminder to keep going, might for someone else be a trigger. That was another reason I decided to speak. I know I might not change people's feelings or perceptions, but I wanted people to know that not everyone on that shoot was approaching it blithely.

I highly doubt that any of the other six [models] had much more, if any, information than I did. They probably all got the same breakdown — they probably didn't realize exactly what it was until, 'Here, stand there, hold this, do this.'

Honestly, that's not a very nice position to be in. And I know it's the usual industry practice, but...

It's still not very pleasant, yeah. Like I said, I wish it had run with some of her poetry. I wish it had run with some more information about her life. Or something about her. Other than just credits for a pretty dress.

Image of Morgan by Paul Esposito.