Creepy Photographers Are a Well-Documented Fashion Industry Problem

Photographer Terry Richardson has been defended by designer Tom Ford, despite multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault.  (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HTC)

After stories hit social media this week accusing celebrity photographer Marcus Hyde of sexual harassment and assault, one of his most famous subjects, Ariana Grande, responded via Instagram Stories with a message that smacked of victim-blaming.

The floodgates opened after 20-year-old model Sunnaya Nash published screenshots of Hyde pressuring her for nude photos, telling her a non-nude photoshoot would cost $2,000, and finally descending into verbal abuse when she objected. Many other young models followed suit, sharing allegations about Hyde that were either incredibly similar to Nash's or even worse.

Despite the horrifying details, Grande's response focused more on the models' decisions than on the alleged behavior of a man worked with. "i hate that this is a conversation," her message stated, in part. "but. please do not shoot with photographers who make you uncomfortable or make you feel like you need to take your clothing off if you don’t want to."

This is not the first time a famous photographer accused of disgusting deeds has received a celebrity shrug. Many celebs don't seem to understand the gulf between how unknown models are handled on photo shoots versus how they themselves are treated. Furthermore, photographers' predatory behavior towards models has been excused as a professional hazard for decades. It doesn't help that most media outlets have been historically disinterested in exposing the problem.

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In April, designer Tom Ford declared his "love" for Terry Richardson, despite two decades of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against the photographer. "I have to say that I never in my entire life saw any of that," Ford told The New York Times. "One of my assistants went out with Terry for two years and he was the kindest, gentlest person.”

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Though Condé Nast cut ties with Richardson in 2017, it took the company 15 years after the first complaint emerged about him to do so. Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga all made music videos with him in the midst of alarming rumors. Sky Ferreira even defended Richardson in a 2014 Facebook post. "I have never felt uncomfortable with Terry," she wrote. "The media ... can paint any picture they want of you. They never have the full details."

By their nature, one-on-one photo shoots are ripe for exploitation. Photographers sit in the power position, directing their subjects, who are frequently younger and more physically vulnerable. The risk of exploitation increases when a successful "name" photographer is shooting an ambitious young person who's trying to stand out from the vast, competitive sea of other models. That power dynamic is so deeply rooted in the fashion world, it can cross over into how photographers react to misconduct allegations.

Where famous actors and comedians routinely apologize, the photographers accused of predation are almost always unrepentant. Greg Kadel of Victoria's Secret, and one-time Vogue favorite Patrick Demarchelier, have both publicly suggested their accusers are lying. When The New York Times detailed sexual assault allegations from 15 male models against Bruce Weber—a photographer who has worked prominently for Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch—Weber responded with an "absolute" denial. After 18 male models and assistants spoke out about alleged sexual exploitation at the hands of Mario Testino last year, the photographer responded by having his lawyers call into question the "character and credibility" of the men who had spoken out.

An industry culture where alleged bad behavior often goes unchecked creates a multitude of problems for models. Last year, in an effort to combat current conditions, one anonymously posted a Google doc of 300 names she had been warned about in the course of doing her job. She was quickly forced to take the list offline "due to concerns over her well-being and her family’s safety."

Despite individuals taking steps to get these kinds of #MeToo allegations out into the world, the mainstream press has been significantly less interested in what happens in fashion than it has been in what happens in the film and TV industry.

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The Guardian's Hadley Freeman has suggested the widespread unwillingness to hold photographers accountable is related to their stature in the industry. "For reasons I’ve never understood," she wrote last year, "photographers are treated like gods in the fashion world." By contrast, all but the most famous of models are treated as disposable.

In the past, the risks always seemed greatest for amateur models working with no-name photographers: serial killers Rodney Alcala, William Bradford and Harvey Glatman all posed as fashion photographers to lure their victims to private places. But the rash of big-name photographers accused of misconduct in the last few years suggests that fashion isn't even safe at the highest echelons.

Last year, following the example of LVMH, Tapestry Inc.—the parent company of Coach and Kate Spade—drew up a detailed charter designed to protect models that included the prohibition of closed sets and the requirement for models under 18 to bring a chaperone to work. That's a good start, but it doesn't help models looking for jobs online, like the ones Marcus Hyde allegedly targeted for abuse via social media.

Instagram took swift action against Hyde, suspending his account “for violating our sexual solicitation policies.” And after reading the many stories about Hyde that came out after Sunnaya Nash had come forward, Kim Kardashian released a statement condemning her one-time friend and collaborator, and applauding the women for speaking out.

So far, most celebrities who have worked with Hyde—including Chance the Rapper, Kanye West and Donald Glover—have stayed frustratingly silent on the matter. But until there are bigger, louder and angrier responses to these kinds of incidents, and until there are real repercussions for the perpetrators, there can be no doubt that models of all genders will be left vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of creeps with cameras.

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Marcus Hyde isn't the first photographer to do this. It's frustrating to be so sure that he won't be the last.

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