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The Predators of Instagram

Models and photographers rely on the social-media platform for networking and promotion. But the lack of regulation against scams, harassment—even abuse—leaves young women extremely vulnerable.

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Sydney Garde always loved modeling—or, more accurately, she loved the idea of modeling. As a four-year-old “fashionista” who would change sequined outfits four to five times a day, she pointed to a Victoria’s Secret storefront and told her mom that she wanted to be an Angel. But by the time she turned 15, around the age most models begin working, she had just about as much know-how on breaking into modeling as she did at 4. She certainly never thought she could start a career by posting selfies with her friends on Instagram. It was 2016, right as the five-year-old app was going through a series of shakeups.

Then someone saw her pictures.

“A photographer that had 75,000 followers followed me and was like, ‘Hey, you have such a great look. I want to work with you,’” Sydney says. She was surprised and excited, and wrote back immediately. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is great, I’ll definitely shoot with you.’”

That 75,000 read like a mark of legitimacy to Sydney, the Instagram equivalent of an Ivy League degree or a press badge from a reputable publication. Whether or not Sydney knew Albert “AJ” Day III, other people did—a lot of other people. If even a fraction of his followers subscribed to her account, she could gain hundreds, even thousands of followers of her own. His clout would become her clout, which she could parlay into a profile that would earn her free clothing and swag, possibly even sponsorships with brands or a contract with an agency, and a life that appeared as glamorous as the girls on her own Instagram feed.

AJ’s following was paired with a glossy profile and an impressive résumé. Based just outside of Atlanta like Sydney, the 30-year-old’s credentials included shoots with big-name models like Meredith Mickelson and scores of contestants in the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants as an official sponsor of Miss Georgia USA. In fact, he was considered one of the most in-demand photographers on the pageant circuit. Soon after they began talking, he told Sydney that he would leverage his connections to get her signed at a big modeling agency like Wilhelmina.

“I was very naïve,” Sydney says. With a legitimate career working with legitimate models, Sydney did not question the motivation behind his promises. “I didn’t have much experience, so I fell into that trap.”

That first message from AJ set off what would become a two-month long episode of escalating inappropriate behavior that she says started with friendly text messages and pet names like “boo” before ratcheting up to near-daily phone calls, intrusive sexual questions, sharing pictures of his penis, and a photoshoot in which Sydney says she felt coerced into removing her bra. Sydney, then a high-school sophomore with a mouthful of braces, hadn’t realized she was being preyed upon, that what was happening was actually criminal.

“When I finally started to realize that things were weird, I was like, ‘I’m in too deep.’ I felt like, since I hadn’t cut it off before, I’d just look stupid if I brought this up to anyone because I felt like they would blame me, too. It snowballed and I didn’t know how to stop it.”

While inexperience led Sydney to miss some initial warning signs, shame kept her from reaching out to her parents or other authority figures after she realized she needed help. Even while her mom sat just out of view as the photo shoot took place, the inertia and novelty of the situation kept Sydney rooted in place as AJ repeatedly pressured her to remove yet another article of clothing. On the car ride back home from AJ’s studio in Braselton, a suburb outside of Atlanta, Sydney said nothing about the trespasses.

This same sense of shame routinely leads survivors to stay silent. Lucia Evans, one of the 87 women accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, grappled for years with whether she had resisted enough when the movie mogul allegedly forced her to perform oral sex on him. “It was always my fault for not stopping him,” she told The New Yorker.

Even Tarana Burke, the activist who coined the phrase “Me Too” 10 years before it went viral, felt at fault for the rape and assault she experienced as a child and teenager. “For a long time I blamed myself,” Burke told Real Change. “I didn’t distrust men; I distrusted myself. To others I could say ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ but I couldn’t say that to myself.”

Then Sydney’s parents went through her phone and discovered the content of AJ’s messages. When they confronted their daughter about the findings, she responded instinctively: “I’m sorry,” she told them.

They made Sydney block AJ, threatened to take her phone away, and stopped just short of going to the police. “I asked my dad not to,” Sydney says, a decision she regrets today. For whatever reason, he listened, and after the initial aftermath, Sydney and her mom would not speak about AJ for another three years; her dad, not to this day. Sydney declined to make her parents available for this story, although emails from the time and interviews with two of her best friends confirm details of her account.

“I didn’t want people around me to find out because I live in a very small community,” she says. “I worried that they would also blame me.” (Word did get out, though, and soon a rumor circulated around Sydney’s school that she was “blowing a photographer to get free photos.”)

Before Sydney cut off communications with AJ, she told him her parents had found out and she threatened him with going to the police. Soon after, he disappeared. He reportedly left Georgia for Florida; the studio bearing his name closed down; and all of his social-media accounts—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, 75,000 followers and all—were deactivated. All that remained of his career, online at least, were photos posted by models on their own accounts and the occasional question about his whereabouts on pageant forums.

Then, in January 2018, in a Georgia town 200 miles from where Sydney lived, another model whom AJ had photographed watched as woman after woman testified against Dr. Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor who molested thousands of gymnasts. Amanda Barnes had never called what happened to her in 2014 sexual assault—she had even tried to get past the incident, texting with AJ a couple of times in the intervening years—but in that moment, her guilt and shame transformed into an irrepressible rage. She went onto Instagram, where she had first seen AJ’s work and reached out to him as an aspiring model, and accused him of sexually assaulting her.  

While the post no longer exists (Amanda deleted it for fear of legal retribution), Amanda’s public statements, in which she claimed AJ forced himself on her at a 2014 photoshoot and digitally penetrated her without her consent, set off a conversation among others who knew and shot with AJ. For some, it confirmed suspicions or rumors that they had heard for years. For many others, it confirmed they were not alone.

Seventeen other women, most of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of AJ publishing explicit photos of them in retaliation, described stories similar to Sydney’s and Amanda’s. For many of them, including one who was 16 at the time, AJ leveraged his online clout for suggestive or nude photos, telling them he needed the pictures to shoot them or to get them jobs. He would present himself as a kind of “gay best friend,” playing down his flirtations as harmless.

“He wanted me to hook up with his friends and he was telling me, if I did hook up with them, that I would be compensated,” explains a model who backed out of shooting with AJ after she says he asked for a “blowie” in return for photos.

Another two models, after becoming uncharacteristically sick and blacking out following a shoot, now believe that AJ spiked their drinks. “In all my years, I have only been sick from drinking two times,” one of the models said, “one of which was on my 21st birthday, and the other on that night.”

In an initial phone call, AJ said that he did not recall Sydney or her allegations, but hung up when asked about Amanda Barnes and additional claims of misconduct. He declined to comment further despite repeated attempts to contact him.

In June, Instagram surpassed one billion users, a majority of whom skew both young and female in the U.S. The photo-sharing app has created an infrastructure of influence that seems to confer wealth, attention, and value on those people who other people like to look at. Attracted by the apparent ease (and arbitrariness) of these celebrity transformations, scores of young women and girls have opened up and documented their lives for a chance at the same. But even while Instagram ushered in a new era of popular voyeurism and exhibitionism, it failed to foresee or address the dangers of that dynamic.

Most of Instagram’s tools for improving user safety revolve around privacy—limiting who can see your profile, either through blocking users or changing visibility settings. But aspiring, amateur, and professional models rely on visibility for their careers.

Instagram declined to speak on the record for this story. When asked about the resources available to those in the fashion and modeling industry—and for other influencers who regularly network and collaborate with photographers—a representative shared a link to a PDF titled, “How to Talk With Your Teen About Instagram: A Parent’s Guide.”

“If you’re reading this, you’re probably a parent,” the guide begins. Through its 25 pages of flashy graphics and images of diverse Instagram users, it makes no mention of sexual harassment or misconduct.

Instagram also sent a link to the the community standards for Facebook, which owns Instagram, explicitly forbidding “content that constitutes or facilitates inappropriate interactions with children.” Instagram’s own community standards lack similar language, and while a representative says the policy applies to Instagram as well, they would not provide a reason for the discrepancy between the two standards or proof of a separate internal policy.

In public, Instagram has long touted its robust efforts to create a friendly, safe platform. “Our goal is to be the safest platform online,” Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, told The Atlantic in October. While other social media companies have sustained controversies of their own, such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube, Instagram has mostly managed to tread water even while distrust of its parent company continues to rise following a series of scandals. The company has worked hard to shape a reputation as the most harmless social media platform with a vocal stance on cyber bullying and feel-good PR stunts like a “Kindness Prom” for teenage influencers.

According to Sydney, together with 17 models, photographers, and advocates interviewed for this story, this attitude has allowed for an unaccountable system rife with scams, online harassment, and predatory behavior.

Instagram is unique in the way that it extends into real-world interactions. The photo-sharing app has profoundly disrupted and reshaped the fashion and modeling industries, enabling an explosion of freelance modeling by offering itself as a de facto agency and networking tool for anyone attracted to the lifestyle and glamour. While the traditional agency system itself suffers from a lack of regulation, sexual misconduct, and economic exploitation, Instagram has lowered the barriers of entry into modeling, exposing a far greater number of people to the pathologies of the industry.

In the immediate aftermath of #MeToo, a wave of models turned to social media to share stories of abuse and call out abusers. Sydney, inspired by the model Cameron Russell, who posted many of these stories on her Instagram account under the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, reported AJ to a crowdsourced blacklist compiled by the anonymous Instagram account ShitModelMgmt—a list that quickly grew to include over 450 names before it was taken down by the account owner for fear of possible legal repercussions.  

But that same chorus has started to single out Instagram’s role in their harassment and abuse, and its inaction in countering it.

“I think that AJ would have done what he did regardless of whether Instagram was a thing or not,” according to one model who says AJ coerced her into shooting nude photos and then groped her breasts and genitals, “but I think that it was easier because of Instagram.”

At 14-years-old, Sara Ziff was approached on her way home from school by a woman pushing a stroller in New York City—a chance encounter with a photographer that launched a nearly-20-year career in the rarefied world of New York fashion. But that time also exposed her to the pernicious sides of the industry, and in 2012, Ziff formed Model Alliance, an advocacy and lobbying group that has pushed for oversight and regulation of the modeling and fashion industry. Soon, Instagram would assert itself as an essential part of fashion and modeling, changing even the ways that scouts find models.

“A lot of scouts and casting directors basically scan Instagram all day, every day, to look for new talent,” she says. But when modeling scouts use the same platform to contact someone as a classmate or internet troll, “it’s difficult for aspiring models to know who is legitimate and who’s not.”

Viewing Instagram as just a platform for the fashion, modeling, and marketing business would be like seeing Netflix as just a host for streaming video—sure, that’s how it functions, but it’s a player in its own right. Instagram has transformed modeling into an economy of scale. Not only does Instagram offer companies a massive platform to advertise their products and services, it also offers an apparent surplus of freelance models and influencers to help sell them. The fact that the value of these selfie salespeople correlates largely with their follower count shows how Instagram has made the system more efficient, demanding that models do more than just pose; they must become both editorial directors and advertising departments, drawing in crowds with original content mined from their lives and then selling that attention to marketers.

Some models appreciate the opportunity to control their visual narratives for a change. “I mean, often it’s our job to be seen and not heard,” Instagram megastar Karlie Kloss said in 2014. “So being able to show what I’m interested in, where I’m traveling… This is going to sound cheesy, but it’s empowering.”

But others give less credit to notions of empowerment when it seems to come at a personal cost. “Selling things has always been a part of the job for models, but rarely has it been so necessary for them to constantly sell themselves,” wrote Vogue’s senior fashion news writer in 2016, cautioning the industry not to place too much importance on models’ social media engagement.

This dynamic ties into the safety of models, too. Ziff points to a connection between sexual harassment and economic exploitation. “If you are financially insecure—say, you are in debt or you’re working paycheck to paycheck—you are much less likely to complain about any kind of abuse,” she says.

Through a grievance reporting service on its website, Model Alliance has seen a steady rise in the number of reports stemming from work on Instagram over the last seven years. About half of all complaints come from freelance models working on Instagram now—a figure that Ziff says likely oversamples for agency-represented models, who are much more likely to know about Model Alliance, thus understating the reality for freelancers.  

While many freelance models believe they would be safer with representation, both the anecdotal evidence and the available data reveal that this doesn’t bear out. As Ziff points out, agencies are not legally required to act in a model’s best interest. They are in the business of selling a product, and that product is young women.

“At the same time,” Ziff says, “unrepresented models don’t have anyone vetting clients and prospective jobs for them. They’re getting job opportunities offered by complete strangers who could be anyone.”

Tanner Mennenga, a 24-year-old man from the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, billed himself as a social-media guru. In his bio on Instagram, he described himself as the CEO and founder of TM Enterprises, a social-media consulting company. Right next to his bio was the ticker showing 35,000 followers and underneath that, rows of glitzy, high-resolution photos of Tanner himself.

But over the last year, Tanner has found himself in court for two separate charges of sexual assault involving 15-year-olds, pleading guilty to both for reduced charges of child abuse with a sexual motivation. In court and on social media, a picture of Tanner began to emerge in which he used Instagram to target young women and girls, playing up his professional credentials and image as a devout Mormon. In both cases heard in court, he was accused of driving the girls to a secluded location and forcing himself on them, rubbing himself on them and, in one case, digitally penetrating a girl without her consent.

After Tanner’s story went public, dozens of women and girls alleged similar interactions with him on social media, suggesting a pattern that extended beyond the two cases heard in court. “I am so proud of all 40-plus of you that have come to me directly with your stories,” wrote one woman on Twitter who coordinated a campaign to report Tanner’s Instagram account.

The Mesa Police Department soon announced that it was recommending three additional charges of sexual abuse against Tanner to the local district attorney, two of which involve minors. A third charge involves a 19-year-old Instagram model who alleges that Tanner reached out to photograph her but assaulted her in the parking lot of a church.

Since pleading guilty, Tanner has returned to social-media consulting, changing the name of his company from TM Enterprises to Viral Industries. While he is required to adhere to similar restrictions as sex offenders, he does not have to officially register as a part of his plea deal.

Along with sexual harassment, Models routinely field bogus offers and scams that take advantage of their aspirations and Instagram’s informality.  

“We’re seeing a huge problem with models who work through Instagram being scammed and not knowing whether these are legitimate job opportunities,” says Ziff. “I’ve even found that when people come to us with these concerns, they half don’t want to hear the answer because they’re so excited to have the possibility of working as a model.”

Instagram model Mimi Kourieh experienced an outpouring of pie-in-the-sky offers from questionable “agencies” in 2017. She received one email from a man who described himself as the manager of an agency called Model Management; he told Mimi she had been scouted for a cover shoot for Harper’s Bazaar that would pay $27,000. The poorly written note asked Mimi to provide information—her age, hair color, measurements, and address—to model a dress and a bikini, and to undergo an undefined “chest size procedure” over Skype.

Mimi rolled her eyes at the transparent scam, but she couldn’t help but want to believe it was real so she reached out to the president of Model Management, Katia Sherman, about the shoot. She got back a one-sentence response: “This is a fake account.”

Not all scams are so obvious, and not every model has the wherewithal to verify credentials, Ziff says. It can be difficult for models trying to make a name for themselves to navigate the world of informal job offers without falling into this kind of trap, one which preys on their aspirations while taking advantage of their vulnerable status as free agents.

Like others who have experienced harassment and abuse, models have turned to social media for solidarity and to flag problematic figures in the industry. But calling out users by name can sometimes go against Instagram’s harassment policy, resulting in greater consequences to the accuser, not the accused.

In one case from February, a popular model and photographer named Jess Linnet posted an account of her negative experience with a photographer along with the experiences of a dozen or so others whom she had spoken to. Within less than an hour, Instagram suspended her account without offering any explanation, leaving the photographer’s account untouched. Jess wrote multiple impassioned emails that explained the difficulty of being a female artist on Instagram and eventually Instagram reinstated her profile. Missing, however, were the accusations against the photographer.

While Ziff has misgivings about call-out justice, she stresses that people only take action into their own hands when no system exists to help them. “This is a problem that’s so overwhelming and that’s been festering for such a long time without any action from the industry,” she says.

Instagram’s “Help Center,” its main resource for users which includes its terms of service, community guidelines, and a “Privacy and Safety Center,” makes no mention of issues like sexual misconduct or predatory behavior outside of a way to report convicted sex offenders. While it provides information and resources for issues related to bullying, online harassment, and eating disorders, it offers no advice for models or anyone else who may use the app to connect and meet with another user in person.

One of the first things we did at Model Alliance,” says Ziff, “was to set up a grievance reporting service.”

She’s not alone. Model Mayhem, a site exclusively dedicated to connecting freelance models and photographers, provides educational material on dealing with unprofessional behavior, avoiding scams, and allows users to report instances of “unprofessional behavior, verbal or physical abuse or sexual assault,” which are handled by their on-staff legal team.

But Ziff cautions against painting Instagram with too broad a brush. In many respects, Instagram has been a positive force in pushing the fashion world in a more inclusive direction for both models and photographers. Without agencies to function as gatekeepers for who should and should not be seen, Instagram has provided a path into an insular industry for historically marginalized groups. “I do think that it has given a platform for the fashion industry to celebrate a variety of beauty,” Ziff says, “including plus-size models, models of color, and other groups who have been underrepresented in the fashion industry.”

The app has been a powerful tool for Ashlee Marie Preston, a Black and trans activist, influencer, and plus-size model whose following of more than 151,000  has amplified her activism and supported her career. Not only does she book photo shoots through Instagram, but she has been tapped for speaking engagements at universities and conferences through the app.

“I found my manager on Instagram, I found my PR on Instagram,” she says. “It’s helped me secure economic opportunities, essentially.”

Preston tells me it’s a double-edged sword. Despite Instagram’s effort to combat bullying, Preston says she has experienced an unprecedented level of racism, transphobia, and homophobia recently. “Especially with the current social and political climate,” she says, “a lot more people have been empowered to engage in harassment and abuse than in any other time in my life.”

Sydney had largely forgotten about AJ until last February—her senior year of high school. While working on a poetry assignment, Sydney began to recall details from the previous year, and was caught off guard by the intensity of her feelings. “I just broke down in the school bathroom,” she says. “I didn’t really ever deal with it.”

More than anything, she felt sad for the guilt she had experienced throughout the situation. “Even if it wasn’t necessarily the guilt of it all happening,” she says, “it was also the guilt of suppressing it. If I had realized then how serious it was, maybe I would have let my dad talk to the police about it.”

Instagram did not invent sexual harassment—it inherited, then perpetuated it. If we focus exclusively on the entities enabling abuse—from Hollywood to Congress—we deflect responsibility from a culture that treats female bodies as currency in a market of male value.

But culture exists when its actors and institutions work in concert to sustain it. The #MeToo movement has prompted a reckoning with the systemic emotional and physical violence enacted to maintain a male-dominated status quo—and also how complicity on behalf of institutions like Instagram has abetted that violence. As a part of that same shift, Sydney and others like her have increasingly come to challenge their guilt and assert the boundary between their responsibility and ours.

“It’s sad that anyone has to think about, ‘How do I prevent this situation from happening and how do I stop it?’” Sydney says. “It should be the other way around, where we teach people not to do this in the first place.”

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