In a lot of ways, the only surprising thing about Terry Richardson’s open letter to “correct” the “rumors” about his conduct over the years is that it’s taken him this long to write it. There’s certainly nothing surprising about its content — it’s exactly the sort of combination of gaslighting and nebulous whinging one might expect from a man who wants to salvage his reputation without actually addressing the allegations against him (the latest of which surfaced this week).
Here’s the thing. No one’s suggesting that Terry Richardson can’t make what he considers to be art. If he wants to put his dick into photos, fine. If he wants to photograph a model on whose face he’s just ejaculated, fine. So long as there’s nothing actually illegal in his images — and no one has ever suggested that there is — he can photograph whatever he wants. As he points out, he’s hardly the first photographer to create provocative images. If his images are “very popular and highly praised,” good for him. It’s not the artistic worth of his photos that is in question here.
But. BUT. BUT. If you’re going to take these sort of photographs, you make 110% sure that the models you’re using are entirely OK with what you’re doing. This has always been the complaint with Richardson, and it’s the difference between him and the artists he’s presumptuous enough to compare himself to (Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and “so many others before me”). In general, the fashion industry creates a clear power imbalance between photographer and model — the public is perhaps used to seeing empowered supermodels dictating the course of their careers, but they are very much the minority. The truth is that most models are scrambling for a foothold in a brutal and merciless industry, and would jump at the chance to work with one of the world’s most famous photographers.
A more responsible man would understand this, and be very careful about how he approached his subject matter. Instead, the constant accusation against Richardson is that he’s been anything but — that at best he’s been unforgivably irresponsible, and at worst he has been predatory or abusive. If you’re photographing your subjects in a position that is in any way questionable, you tread very carefully. You do not abuse their trust. You do not abuse them. You do not, as the latest round of accusations suggest, ask them to perform oral sex on you and then jerk off in their face. And unless you’re some sort of sociopath, you do not need to be told this.
You also do not get the models to sign releases before you shoot them, which is what model Charlotte Waters alleged in her interview with Vocativ this week, and which Richardson fails to acknowledge when he says “as is typical with any project, everyone signed releases.” He also suggests, “I collaborated with consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work,” which is more weasel words — sure, everyone knows that Terry Richardson shoots girls in various states of undress, but so do lots of photographers, none of whom are currently being accused of shoving their dicks in people’s faces.
Richardson is keen to cast blame on the internet for what he calls an “on-going quest for controversy-generated page views, sloppy journalism fueled by sensationalized, malicious, and manipulative re-countings of this work.” But, predictably enough, he makes no effort to address exactly why he considers the journalism here has been sloppy. Indeed, he doesn’t engage with the accusations at all, instead relying on nebulous statements about witch hunts and rumors. (He also suggests they are libelous, which rather raises the question of why he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is and sue, if he really believes this.)
This sort of thing is exactly why feminist campaigners have long been calling for a fundamental shift in the way our society addresses accusations of sexual assault — because it’s all too easy to cast aspersions and undermine victims’ credibility without ever addressing their actual accusations. This could be a case study in how to perpetuate rape culture: undermine the credibility of your accusers (“people have become comfortable concocting hate-filled and libelous tales about my professional and personal lives”); act all high and mighty (“I felt that to dignify [accusations] with a response was a betrayal of my work and my character”); and throw in a sort of nebulous “can’t we think of real victims” appeal for good measure (“Believing such rumors at face value does a disservice not only to the spirit of artistic endeavor, but most importantly, to the real victims of exploitation and abuse”).
If anything does a disservice to the spirit of artistic endeavor, it’s perpetuating the stereotype of the male photographer as a creepy old man who gets off on getting young girls naked. And in any case, it’s not the spirit of artistic endeavor that’s important here. It’s the experiences of the young girls who have worked with Richardson and been scarred by the experience, girls for whom this statement suggests he continues to feel nothing but contempt. If he really thought he’d been hard done by, he’d have the gumption to face up to their accusations and explain why he thinks they’re unfounded. Instead, he prefers to do nothing but muddy the waters, just like so many abusive men before him.