A new magazine profile of the photographer poses the wrong question. And reveals just how little we value women’s experience with regard to a man’s work.
In a 7,400-word epic feature in New York magazine, Benjamin Wallace asks: “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” This is a curious false dichotomy—I confess I’ve never seen the appeal of Richardson’s work (“It’s just a girl shot with harsh lighting on a white background, BUT I came on her face!”), but it is of course possible to be both. More importantly, the question of whether someone is an artist is a matter of opinion and taste. The question of whether he’s a predator seems like it should come down to fact.
But Wallace treats that question as a matter of opinion, too. And that’s not because he’s a bad reporter, or because the article isn’t impressively thorough. It’s because Wallace is writing it from within a culture that thinks a woman’s experience is a matter of debate.
Terry Richardson, for those of you who have been lucky enough to miss all this, is a well-known fashion and celebrity photographer. You’ve seen his work, even if you don’t know his name: bright flash, white background, nude breasts, girls with milk or food all over their faces. He’s collaborated with Lady Gaga; he directed a video for Miley Cyrus. (A nude one, naturally.) And he’s been accused multiple times, both in print and in lawsuits, of pressuring models into sexual acts they didn’t want to do.
Richardson doesn’t bother to deny that he often sheds his clothes during shoots (he’s just trying to make the girls feel comfortable!) and that he likes to insert himself, Hitchcock-like, into every photography session. Unlike Hitchcock, he often inserts himself literally, by having models touch his penis or give him a blowjob or have sex with him. He doesn’t dispute this; he just feels it’s not a problem. The models, at least the majority of the ones who have spoken up, tend to feel that it is.
Wallace’s piece treats this as a legitimate dispute and aims to show both sides. It has many of the hallmarks of a balanced investigative profile, and anyone taking it at face value might believe it to be exactly that: an even-handed treatment of an embattled man. But in fact, it only looks balanced because Richardson, the article, and the culture they operate in are skewed in the same ways. All of them treat a woman’s experience of sexual coercion as something others can weigh in on, evaluate, and probably reject.
Over and over throughout the piece, Wallace will outline a model’s story of feeling pressured and exploited, being told to do whatever it takes and then finding out that “whatever it takes” requires her to perform sexually in a way she didn’t bargain for. And then Richardson or one of his pals will breeze in and explain that Terry has a big dick, or that women want to be told they’re beautiful, or that she seemed into it at the time, or that Terry always said “if you don’t want to, that’s cool.” This is, in the strictest of senses, showing both sides. But one side is a woman talking about her personal experience, and the other is a man and his supporters saying she’s wrong.
We’re told that Richardson’s assistant (and, according to Jezebel, girlfriend) Alex Bolotow dismisses the allegations, saying that “Trying to put the onus onto someone else for your own decisions is really cowardly and kind of dishonest.” We’re told that Chloë Sevigny dressed up as him and kissed him on the cheek, that Helmut Newton is a fan of his work, that professional gross opinion-haver Gavin McInnes likes the same sandwich as he does. (In fairness, it sounds like a really good sandwich.) We’re told Jared Leto’s opinion, for some unfathomable reason. But it’s not just possible for Richardson to be a sexual predator whose friends think he’s a great guy—it’s downright likely. Cases of rape are often played this way, as though sexual assault were a personality contest: He’s a real mensch, she’s a bitch and a slut, so who are you going to believe? Roman Polanski is an admitted child rapist and he still has a small red carpet’s worth of celebrity pals willing to attest to his warmth and good humor.
The perceptions don’t make the man here; this isn’t “Terry Richardson Has a Cold.” If a girl says “he told me to have sex with him, but I didn’t want to,” her unwillingness is not up for discussion; you can’t retroactively celebrity-testimony her into feeling comfortable and empowered and pressure-free. People saying Richardson isn’t a creep doesn’t prove that he isn’t a creep. It just proves that there will always be people willing to make excuses for men who exploit and prey upon women, by insisting that women’s emotions must be fake or overblown—by showing the “other side” of their experience, the one where they’re wrong about what they think they wanted.
“At some level, whether you believe Richardson was sexually coercive hinges on a judgment of the power dynamic in any given photo shoot, and of the agency of young models in the moral vacuum of the fashion world,” says Wallace, before going on to quote a single model, Freja Beha, who feels Richardson “has never taken me anywhere I’ve felt uncomfortable with.” But it doesn’t hinge on that at all. It hinges on whether the young models feel sexually coerced. The money quote isn’t Beha’s “he’s one of the most sensitive people in the business.” It’s model Sara Ziff saying “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.” It’s Gabriela Johansson avowing, in the lawsuit she filed against Richardson, that his shoot made her “extremely uncomfortable.” It’s Rie Rasmussen telling Richardson “what you do is completely degrading to women.” Jamie Peck writing that “I can remember doing this stuff, but even at the time, it was sort of like watching someone else do it, someone who couldn’t possibly be me because I would never touch a creepy photographer’s penis,” and adding that the incident “left me feeling like I needed to take two showers.” Anna del Gaizo admitting that Richardson shoving his penis in her face made her “disgusted and unnerved” although “I didn’t want to act afraid; I was outnumbered, and I thought showing fear or outright shock would lead to something worse.” Charlotte Waters saying that her experience was “disgusting and it makes me cringe.”
Is Richardson a predator? He is a man with power and influence who tells teenage girls to suck his dick when they don’t feel empowered to refuse, so yes. His behavior is predatory; he uses his relative strength and their relative weakness to get what he wants. The fact that he and his friends will disingenuously protest that these girls are mistaken about how they feel, and the fact that this gets treated with equal weight as the models’ own testimonies, only means that they all live in the same messed-up society as the rest of us.
When one side is saying “I felt used and exploited” and the other is saying “no you didn’t,” that’s not balance; it only looks that way if you believe that a woman’s sense of safety is less important than a man’s art.
Fortunately for Terry Richardson, a lot of people do.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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