Friday, November 28, 2014

The Terry Richardson sexual assault scandal: explained

Terry Richardson Taylor Hill/Film Magic/Getty Images

A long New York magazine profile of fashion photographer Terry Richardson has revived discussion of the numerous accusations of sexual assault that have been levied against him over the years. Richardson is one of the most successful and accomplished fashion photographers in the business, but he's also one of the most controversial. He's been accused of using that power and prominence to abuse young women looking to make it.

Here's a brief primer on the current controversy, the past allegations, and who Terry Richardson is.

Who Is Terry Richardson?

Terry Richardson is a very successful, 48-year-old fashion photographer. He's worked for some of the country's most prominent magazines, including GQ, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Rolling Stone. And he's photographed everyone from Barack Obama (for Vibe) to Beyonce (for GQ) to Miley Cyrus (he also directed the video for "Wrecking Ball"). He's also connected to Hollywood A-Listers like Lena Dunham (he dated her best friend) and Lady Gaga (they produced a book together).

Richardson is known for photographing his subjects in a more informal style than what you'd see in most high-concept, expensive photo shoots. His signature is capturing subjects in front of a white background and using a lot of flash.

He's also known for sexualizing his subjects. In 2010 he garnered controversy for shooting Glee's stars in a very sexually suggestive way for GQ. Here's how he portrayed star Lea Michele:



Another of his more notorious shoots was a 2001/2002 campaign for the clothing brand Sisley. What Richardson is symbolizing here probably needs no explanation:



In his non-commercial work, Richardson produces explicit photography books like Terryworld and Kibosh, which are extremely graphic and include pictures of Richardson engaging sexual acts with his subjects. New York reported:

The Italian publisher Damiani brought out a Richardson book called Kibosh. Printed in a limited edition of 2,000, it remains the most extreme collection of his work. It is a black, clothbound monument to Richardson’s penis, which appears in most of the 358 images. A preponderance of the photographs depict Richardson receiving oral sex or ejaculating on a woman’s face. He called it "my life’s work" and "the summary of my career."

Jamie Peck, one of the women who has come forward with allegations against Richardson, was photographed for and appears in Kibosh.

How long have these sexual assault allegations been going on?

The first allegations came to the surface in 2005, when Richardson faced two separation lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault. One of these was filed by a model named Gabriela Johansson. In that complaint, Johansson alleged that Richardson "ultimately pushed aggressively for her to pull down her bottoms and/or remove all of her clothes" during a "casting session" and then terminated the "casting session" when she refused to go any further.

The other lawsuit in 2005 was filed by a model named Frank Lopera. Lopera alleged that Richardson took nude photos of him, told him that these photos would never go public, but then published them in his book Terryworld.

Richardson settled both lawsuits.

Not every allegation Richardson faced ended with a lawsuit. Jezebel has published at least six articles detailing several allegations from various models. Some of the allegations include: Richardson taking advantage of an inebriated model, Richardson sexually assaulting a model while photographing her, Richardson asking for oral sex during a shoot, and Richardson coercing a model to touch his penis during a shoot.

And it's of course possible there are models out there who haven't come forward about Richardson. Richardson is very well-connected, and because the fashion world is so insular, and Richardson wields a lot of power in it, models may feel like they're putting their careers in jeopardy if they speak up.

"It was supposed to be for a mainstream fashion magazine, but when I arrived, he unexpectedly asked me to pose topless," Sarah Ziff, a model quoted in the New York piece said. "I felt pressured to comply because my agent had told me to make a good impression because he was an important photographer who shot for all the major magazines and brands."

Why should I care about this if I'm not a "fashion" person?

You don't have to be a fashion person or interested in fashion to understand or be aware of the serious allegations that Richardson is facing. As a consumer, it might be of interest to you where your money goes and who supports Richardson.

Richardson claims his day rate is $160,000, which he gets from magazines and clothing brands to promote their work. If you're buying these clothes, reading articles in the magazines he's working for, or clicking on those websites, you could, in a sense, be supporting Richardson, regardless of how you feel about the allegations he's facing. Jezebel has a full list of outlets he's worked for in recent years, if you're interested.

What did people think of the New York magazine profile of Richardson?

New York ran its profile of Richardson with the headline "Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?" which immediately set the tone for its reception.

The (perhaps unintended) implication that someone's either an artist or a predator, but not both, upset some critics. "It's also wildly misleading: as though it's possible that the end product justifies the sexual coercion that created it, or that a respected photographer isn't capable of preying on the women who pose for him," Jezebel's Callie Beusman wrote.

Two models who allege that Richardson assaulted them have already written separate responses to the profile. And in both of those responses, the models say that Wallace didn't treat the sexual assault allegations against Richardson with the respect and seriousness he should have.

For example, Wallace uses the line "professional models weren’t all so enthused" to describe women who say they were pressured into performing sex acts or posing topless by Richardson.

"Call me crazy, but allegations of sexual harassment and abuse are a little more important than what type of sandwich Uncle Terry likes to eat in the morning," Jamie Peck, a model who said that Richardson forced himself on her and made her touch his penis, wrote in The Guardian. She goes on to explain that she and Wallace spoke for an hour, but he only used one quote from her.

Sena Cech, another model who alleges that Richardson sexually assaulted her while on the job, believes that she was made to look like an instigator by an unnamed source in Wallace's profile. "This is a flat-out lie. 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," Cech wrote in a statement.

The article did have its defenders. The New York Times's Vanessa Friedman made the argument that it talked about the hot-button issues in modeling (models being relatively young, the power dynamic, etc.) in a fair way. Her future colleague and current Wired editor Bill Wasik felt similarly, explaining that Wallace's piece could help open up the story:

What has Richardson said?

Richardson has denied the allegations, but didn't deny that sexual acts happen on his shoots. One of his defenses was that he was never alone with a girl, and he implies assault can't happen if people were watching or there. "It was never just me and a girl, ever…It was always assistants, or other people around, or girls brought friends over to hang out." he told New York.

"It was very daytime, no drugs, no alcohol," he continued, explaining that if there were sex acts in the shoot, it was done for art and sexuality. "It was a happening, there was energy, it was fun, it was exciting, making these strong images, and that’s what it was. People collaborating and exploring sexuality and taking pictures."

That's doubly troubling when you consider that some of the allegations say that people on set were complicit. According to a report from Vocativ, two of Richardson's accusers said that Richardson colleague Leslie Lessin "served as Richardson’s enabler, facilitator and collaborator during their nude sessions with him." Vocativ explains:

Shown a photograph of Leslie Lessin, Waters [one of the models who has come out against Richardson] confirmed "without a doubt" that Lessin was the assistant who Waters says stood over her and took photos with a point-and-shoot camera as Richardson ejaculated onto her face. "Made my jaw drop seeing that pic!" wrote Waters.

This also isn't the first time Richardson has issued a defense to the sex assault allegations. Back in March, he penned a column at the Huffington Post and called the stories of his behavior "nothing more than an emotionally-charged witch hunt."  He said that the women he was shooting consented:

I give everyone that I work with enough respect to view them as having ownership of their free will and making their decisions accordingly, and as such, it has been difficult to see myself as a target of revisionist history. Sadly, in the on-going quest for controversy-generated page views, sloppy journalism fueled by sensationalized, malicious, and manipulative recountings of this work has given rise to angry Internet crusades.

Is anyone on Richardson's side?

Some argue that New York is on Richardson's side because the magazine did not, in their eyes, do enough to hammer home the seriousness of these allegations.

What the New York and Wallace make clear is that the fashion industry and Richardson and many of those who work in it may believe that they operate by a different and more fluid set of rules when it comes to sex. Wallace spoke to Joan Juliet Buck, the former editor of French Vogue, who argued that the boundaries between sex and sexual assault are blurred when it comes to the fashion industry.

"When a beautiful young girl is standing on the paper, and the photographer is looking at her — that thing of being told you’re the most beautiful works everyone into a state of desire, where the girl is being appreciated and she feels loved," she said. "There’s a very fine line between abuse of that innocence and validation of their beauty."

Castings like the ones Richardson and other photographers conduct are the equivalent of a job interview for a model. And it'd be difficult to name many other industries where job interviews possibly include sex.

A few of Richardson's friends have tweeted praise for the article and shared it:

McInnes, a cofounder of Vice, is also quoted defending Richardson in the article. McInnes himself has come under criticism for being a misogynist, and perhaps may not be the sturdiest of character witnesses when it comes to the topic of Richardson's treatment of women.

Who is still working with Richardson?

Companies have slowly been distancing themselves from Richardson. Target and H&M, Buzzfeed reported, said they had no future plans to work with him. Vogue followed suit. And Wallace reported that T, the New York Times's style magazine, and the fashion magazine W both said they had "no plans" to work with him.

In April, Neil Patrick Harris shot with Richardson and tweeted praise for the photographer, calling it a "bucket list" moment. Shortly after, he was berated on the social media platform for supporting Richardson and then promptly deleted the tweet.

Has Richardson been charged with any crime?

No. The lawsuits Richardson faced were both civil suits and were settled. But one of Richardson's accusers did try to talk to an NYPD detective.

"I told him the story, and all he said was that is wasn’t a crime situation because I never said no, " Charlotte Waters told Vocativ. But she explained that she isn't coming forward to press charges, but rather in hopes that others find the courage to do the same.

"So Richardson’s off the hook. It kind of sucks," she added.

Update: I included more perspectives/reactions on the piece.

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