NEW YORK, United States — There is an old folk tale passed around among tourists to the American southwest, that the Pueblo people of the area object to having their picture taken because they believe the photograph will steal their soul. Well, even if that is a bit of Baedeker’s-style hokum, maybe there is some metaphorical truth to this idea. As we are recently starting to admit, there is a very real threat to the soul, and more, of the often young, ambitious, vulnerable aspirants who come to the image-making capitals of Hollywood and the fashion world, full of hopes and dreams. The news that the mega-photographer Bruce Weber is alleged to have sexually harassed model Jason Boyce during a test shoot is but the latest, if no less disturbing, sign that the industry of image-making is dangerously broken.
After The New York Times and The New Yorker reported in October the allegations against Harvey Weinstein (at least 57 women have now come forward and alleged sexual misconduct — even rape — by the Hollywood producer), the courage of these women has proved contagious, making the culture at large, at least for the moment, more receptive to their claims, and inclined to respond. On Tuesday of last week, for example, just over 24 hours after the first formal claims were leveled against him, Matt Lauer was fired by NBC. After the claims brought against Louis CK, Netflix and HBO distanced themselves from the comedian whose film “I Love You Daddy” will no longer be distributed. When several men came forward to allege sexual misconduct by Kevin Spacey, the actor was fired from “House of Cards” and dropped by his representatives. And, after years of claims against the fashion photographer Terry Richardson, Condé Nast, Hearst, Bulgari and Valentino have all sworn off working with him.
In October, The New York Times described Richardson as “the tip of the iceberg” in fashion; and, last month, WWD reported that the Times was at work on “investigative article about top fashion photographers and abuse in the modelling industry.” We await further revelations about other offenders in the industry which, like Hollywood, largely consists of older, more established players ever-hungry for new, young talent — themselves often vulnerable, generally unprotected and unguided — to market the values of youth and beauty that they are ultimately selling. If ours is a leering culture, hypersexualising the subjects of our attention — whether to sell jeans, movie tickets, or country albums — it is also evidently littered with predators. But these predators, so quickly labelled as outside of societal norms, are often encouraged by our wider culture, given outlet and opportunity for their crimes by this culture, and then sheltered by it (even, elected by it).
In the suit against Weber, first reported by The New York Post, Boyce claims that Weber forcibly kissed him and created an explicit casting couch situation. “Weber,” the suit claims, “put his fingers in Mr Boyce’s mouth. Shocked, Mr Boyce opened his eyes. Mr Weber told him to keep his eyes closed, and kept his fingers in Mr Boyce’s mouth. ‘If you just had confidence, you’d go really far,’ Mr Weber whispered. ‘How far do you want to make it? How ambitious are you?’ Mr Boyce did not respond.” While underlining Boyce’s aspirations for himself – his goals, hopes and dreams, so as to demand compromise, degradation even – Weber was, Boyce alleges, insisting that Boyce keep his eyes closed, denying him his own sight, his way to see himself right or right out of there, making of him an object with no vision, no gaze, no volition of his own.
The first question that comes to mind is how the fashion world will respond. After the first and second waves of allegations against Richardson, in 2010, and 2014, he was only mildly censured and, after only a brief hiatus, returned to work. But with what is now so plainly known, what practical safeguards, what forms of oversight and accountability should be put in place — industry-wide, culturally — so that these kinds of abuses cannot resume?
The second question is more existential, and it cuts to the quick of fashion’s main mission, namely, selling sex. Fashion photographers are grand architects and auteurs of our cultural gaze, famed, at least in part, for the erotic frisson of their pictures, frisson which has been counted on to turn into a desire on the part of the beholder, desire to be like their subjects in some way, to be with them, to be where they are, to be who we think they are, to dress like them, to interact with them in our own, personal fantasy lives. This alchemical reaction, from allure to point of sale, is fundamental to the very existence of the fashion industry. How to reckon with this? And how now to deal with the imagery — some of it beloved, iconic — created by alleged abusers?
Our collective leer at newly nubile models in ads made to sell stuff is predation en masse.
In the case of Richardson, his work — work, which, until now, perhaps, has proven so alluring to fashion and corporate brands to have made him covetable even despite the claims against him — has been valuable expressly because it is the ultimate realisation of our collective cultural leer. The style for which he is best known — shooting his subjects straight-on with bright flash against a white seamless, often in sexual suggestive poses, or plied with props that do the same — is pure objectification, stripping his subjects of any characteristics beyond their sex, laminating them in the heat of the gaze and polishing them to a high gloss as if they were Jeff Koons’s balloon animals, or action figures on the shelf at a toy store.
Even when practiced by other photographers, by other facets of the culture, toward other ends, and even when the subjects are properly protected, this objectification, this reduction to sex-doll-singularity, is a kind of soul snatching. Image capture. When we idealise models, performers, public personalities — anyone, we are stripping them of all the mess and mystery of their real, living humanity, reducing them to a chimera, an archetype maybe, a fiction, one note in what otherwise might be a score. The subjects of fashion campaigns and editorials are made into props, miniaturised as if seen through binoculars the wrong way around. And the ones looking, the ones behind the “gaze,” as we call it, the ones responsible for this reduction, are you and me.
Ours are the eyes of the beholder, and we are the end-client for whom those pictures, those campaigns, those films are finally intended. It may be our image-making industries, expressly, that prey on the young, the beautiful, the vulnerable. But it is on our behalf. And our collective leer at newly nubile models in an underwear ad, say, made specifically for our general titillation in order to sell stuff, is a predation en masse. It’s a kind of vampirism, plundering the youth and vitality, the cool, the style, the attitude, the fearlessness, the optimism, the allure of another. Maybe not vampirism in the gothic, bloodsucking way — at least not exactly — but only because we cannot weigh the life and lust gained by the predators at the cost of the victims. We cannot even begin to measure the toll taken on the subjects of our gaze. Nor can we estimate the effect on even the passive participant in a lecherous culture. What, it is worth asking, is our collective leer telling us about ourselves, our worth, our aesthetic appetites?
I want to feel sexy, desirable, we all do. I want to feel that comfort and even élan that comes with physical fitness and recognising in the mirror some chime with our consensus criteria for beauty. I, too, want to look better naked. But, whether due to nurture or nature or both, I’m half-convinced, half-terrified that the best thing I’ll ever bring to any table, to any job, relationship, interaction, anything is sexual desirability, that the very best attribute one could ever hope to have in our culture is erotic potential. Where did I learn that? Well, everywhere. In the books I read, the culture I consume, the movies I watch, and, of course, in the “marketplace.”
How many times, when prepping for a meeting or a milestone in your career where there is real potential for advancement, have your friends, colleagues, even parents, wondered aloud whether the person in a position to pull the switch in your favour might be at all attracted to you? Maybe they teasingly encouraged you to flirt a little, to dress in a more provocative or revealing way. It’s not just them. From the time when we reach adulthood, we are handed, with matter-of-factness, the apparent truism that “sex sells.” Just like that. Telling it how it is. I don’t make the rules, kid.
Couple this sort of defeatism parading as wisdom with a wildly unstructured industry, with nothing approaching job security, let alone clear paths to success, and you get Hollywood and the world of fashion. In an open letter to the fashion industry, the model Edie Campbell described her work as a “school trip for all ages,” collapsing personal and professional norms until it “becomes harder to define what is appropriate behaviour for the workplace. Pranks, sexually explicit jokes, suggestive comments — these all slide under the radar in a ‘fun’ and ‘creative’ industry like fashion,” she wrote. “Work, to me, does not look like work: I undress in front of the people I work with, I travel with these people, I get drunk with them, they ask me who I’m shagging, we tell stories, we giggle, we gossip and we become part of ‘the gang.’”
This objectification, this reduction to sex-doll-singularity, is a kind of soul snatching.
In both Hollywood and fashion, entrepreneurial industries where groups of people come together as a pop-up posse in order to execute a creative endeavour – be it a film, a shoot, an issue, a collection, a commercial – there are generally very few hard and fast rules of operation. No one wants to say you must or must not do this or that for fear that the creative spark will be dampened — or, really, that whatever mystical juju that results in revenue will be destroyed. Because of this, these industries can feel like the Wild West, hinterlands beyond the reaches of normal modes of behaviour and the checks and balances that enforce them. And, just as they did in the mythical Wild West, the lecherous and the bullies take advantage of the lack of structure, of oversight in these industries. Without structural hierarchies or accountability, these worlds are too easily given over to a kind of gangsterism, where power is consolidated among a few chieftains who, more often than not, rule by thuggish bullying, taking advantage of the desperate many, playing them off against one another (if you don’t want the job, there are a hundred others who will happily replace you, sweetie), with no regard for the collective, but only for their own celebration and enrichment.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the industries responsible of late for perpetuating the Great Man Theory should operate in a way that allows for, tolerates and celebrates bombastic personalities who would forge their monumental creative visions no matter the cost to those around them, so long as it is art — or returns a profit. As Campbell described it in her letter, “the fashion industry revolves around the artist-genius. As an artist-genius, you are allowed to behave in any way you see fit, and you inspire total fear and devotion from your followers. If you are creative, and if your work is good, you will be forgiven anything. You are given carte blanche to express that creativity, whatever your means of expression may be. And if that creativity only flows after midnight, and if it only responds to semi-nude young men or women, then so be it.”
Anyone who has worked within earshot of Hollywood or the world of fashion knows this phenomenon, knows it all too well. And we need to ask whether we will still stand for this, because our silence is part of the problem.
On the other side of the equation there’s the consumer. Because with purchasing power comes actual power — if we put our money into the right things and withhold it from the wrong things, we can at least start the conversations we need to get there. Conversations about what we are doing to the subjects of our gaze, and what that gaze is doing to us; about a culture that fetishises youth and sex to fuel its fragile sense of vitality and its economy.
Sex sells, we’ve been told, like it was the end of the story. Sex sells like gravity keeps us down. Well, yeah, let’s find out how to climb, fly, leave the orbit of predation, victimisation; let us transcend the leer and the culture that profits from it.
Disclosure: Chris Wallace is a former model who has been shot by Bruce Weber.