Earlier this week, The Daily Telegraph broke the news that magazines under the Condé Nast umbrella — such as Vogue and GQ — would no longer be working with notorious photographer Terry Richardson. In a leaked e-mail sent internally by James Woolhouse, Executive Vice President and CEO of Condé Nast International, staff were informed in no uncertain terms that the publication should sever its ties with Richardson: “Any shoots that have been commission[ed] or any shoots that have been completed but not yet published, should be killed and substituted with other material,” he said.
It’s nothing short of disgusting to think that a man accused on numerous occasions of sexual harassment, abuse of power and sexual assault has been allowed to maintain his position of power for so long.
To individually document in detail the allegations made against him would essentially double the word count of this article: women such as Anna Del Gaizo, Rie Rasmussen, Charlotte Waters and Jamie Peck have all publicly denounced the photographer, with some claiming that he jammed his semi-hard dick in their face without warning, pressured them into giving him a hand-job or jerked off until he came in their eyes. Elsewhere, there are allegations that models were tricked into signing release forms agreeing to nudity and being coerced into playing with his dick; compounded by the fact that other models and magazines (W blacklisted him for over a decade) have expressed discomfort with his working behavior in the past.
On the other hand, a lengthy – and controversial – 2014 profile by New York Magazine seemed to cast doubt on the statements given by alleged victims. Yet this piece was criticized for its factual inaccuracies, namely a number of complimentary quotes given by an “assistant” who turned out to be a girlfriend.
In the piece, Richardson was painted as a child-like victim; his suicide attempts, heroin addiction and fraught (to say the least) relationship with his parents were all explored at length, used as an explanation of sorts for his behavior. He would disrobe in front of his models because he had long been cripplingly shy; getting naked and wielding his giant dick in the face of his subjects apparently helped him become sexually liberated.
Richardson has written, in his own words, that models always participated with consent and that he has become the victim of a "witch hunt" fueled by “hate-filled and libelous tales.” “People will always have strong opinions about challenging images, and the dichotomy of sex is that it is both the most natural and universal of human behaviors and also one of the most sensitive and divisive,” Richardson wrote this for The Huffington Post back in 2014, just after a paragraph in which he compared his work to genuine icons like Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe.
The implication is that we just don’t “understand” his art – with these words, he is arguing that his critics are inherently uncomfortable with the notion of sexualized imagery without bothering to acknowledge that they’re actually more concerned with the allegations of abuse that plagued their creation.
It’s worth asking why a model would consent to this in the first place. The first, most obvious reason is that Richardson is fiercely revered in the fashion industry — he is (or was) a man with power. He’s a man surrounded by assistants who enable his behavior, convincing models that there’s nothing wrong with these shoots. These models are sent by agents, all of whom are likely so enthralled by the prestige attached to a Richardson shoot that they advise girls to do whatever he asks.
Sound familiar? Over the last few weeks, a series of exposés have unveiled the frequent sexual harassment conducted by Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein. Distressing hashtags, emotional posts and potentially compromising statements made by high-profile celebrities have unveiled what most of us already knew: that there’s a rotten core at the heart of an industry known for its artificial sheen.
Normalization is the common thread that links Weinstein and Richardson. Masculinity, power and prestige are used to justify their abuse. We’re told to expect this behavior from men; boys will be boys, after all.
There are several systems surrounding these two men which explain exactly why they’ve been allowed to continue their violations relatively unchallenged for so long. With Hollywood, it’s the "casting couch" mentality which apparently still persists. We’re told that rich men with power can be beneficial and that to publicly shame them spells the end for a burgeoning career, so victims keep their mouths shut and agents continue to silence stories for the sake of lucrative commissions. In the fashion industry, there’s the notion that sex sells. Some of the industry’s most successful campaigns have been NSFW, some in a brilliant way and others in a creepier way; still, there’s the insinuation that imagery like that created by Richardson is "edgy." It isn’t: it’s exploitation.
Worse still, magazine publishers (not to mention brands like Supreme) who have continued to commission his work, such as Condé Nast, are complicit in this continued abuse. In 2014, Vogue publicly stated that it wouldn’t work with Richardson again in the face of disturbing allegations — yet other Condé Nast publications seemingly continued to do so, otherwise why would Woolhouse find it necessary to send the now-leaked email? Rolling Stone, which is not a Condé Nast publication, gave him his "comeback" shoot in 2015 — the furore died down and life carried on as normal. Ironically, Condé Nast aren’t blacklisting him for fresh allegations. It's old news brought back to light by Weinstein’s transgressions. Now we have a new scandal, we’re actively invested in old ones: this ban, though a step in the right direction, arrives far too late.
Furthermore, it’s no secret that the fashion industry is built on a questionable but solid foundation of paid advertisements, unpaid internships and, in lieu of a better word, nepotism. Richardson makes serious money, advertisers need a big name to drive campaigns and fashion photographers are forced to juggle their own working costs in a notoriously exclusive system buoyed by the work of aging greats. There are some exceptions — some youth-driven publications are actively championing fresh talents, but the old guard (namely Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the other titles responsible for keeping Richardson’s career afloat) are reluctant to take a chance on newbies due to their lack of experience.
This cycle has to be broken. The current POTUS has been accused of sexual assault on various occasions; these same accusations plague many of the world’s most influential men, yet their platform is never shattered because we continue to rationalize their actions as a byproduct of societal norms.
Not all men are perverts, but our concept of masculinity is still rooted in power, authority, aggression, "cheekiness;" phrases like “man up,” “boys will be boys” prove that these are stereotypes so deeply ingrained in cultural consciousness that they literally permeate language. We forgive men when they fuck up because they may have had tough childhoods, or flirt with provocation in their work, or simply want to use their power to seduce a few women on the side.
Publications forgive these men because of the aforementioned power: the fashion industry in particular is in crisis, desperately clutching at the kind credibility which Richardson’s spunk-smeared editorials can apparently provide. Don’t be too quick to praise Condé Nast for privately "boycotting" sexual predators like Richardson — there's a long way to go before the industry can claim any kind of moral high ground.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
If you have been sexually assaulted, there are resources to help you.