Essays

Terry Richardson: How A Controversy Becomes A Beast

Terry Richardson without his signature glasses (via Terry Richardson’s Diary)

It started in Paris during the second week of March. When New York-based artist and famed fashion photographer Terry Richardson ran into the Danish model Rie Rasmussen at a fashion event, he found himself confronted by the latter. According to Rasmussen, she accused him of abusing his power to exploit young models for his overtly sexual images, upon which Richardson fled the scene and later called her agency to complain. This in turn prompted Rasmussen to vent more publicly.

On the surface, Richardson’s body of work, which aside from his more commercial assignments is explicitly sexual, does not necessarily help his case. Blurring the line between art and pornography, he is far from pursuing mainstream goals. In addition, he puts himself in the middle as many of his images show him actually having sex. To those who are less inclined to look at his overall mission of establishing a complex exhibitionist portrait of himself and his surroundings, he might simply appear as a pervert. While his critics label him mundane and mono-focused, his admirers see in him a contemporary mélange of Diane Arbus and Jeff Koons, whose dedication to portraying the everyday fringe made of porn stars, supermodels, transsexuals, hillbillies, friends, and pets to celebrities, is wholehearted. To create work that has no taboos (in particular if it comes to sex or religion) in a society that is filled with them, will always cause a stir. However, if paired with such a serious accusation as abuse, an artist like Richardson has to face something else: an unleashing of emotion and criticism long held back. If this package comes with some sloppy reportage the mess is made.

Ultimately, who knows if Richardson truly abuses his power on his set. Would he be the first in the fashion industry to take advantage of young aspiring fashion models who long to spike up their career and dream of their first magazine cover? Of course not. As an observer and a female writer, the last thing I would like to do is jump to someone’s defense whom I do not know personally and who might turn out to be guilty. What I believe however is that as long as nothing has been proven, everyone’s innocence should remain intact.

In the meantime, what interests me in this case is how the story has unfolded in the media. How it went from the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal online, to a large variety of online forums and private blogs. On March 11, The New York Post cited Rasmussen verbatim: “I told him what you do is completely degrading to women. I hope you know you only [bleep] girls because you have a camera, lots of fashion contacts and get your pictures in Vogue.” On March 16, Jamie Speck, who once worked with Richardson in the past, stepped forward. On The Gloss, she ended a lengthy account of their photo session by reflecting: “As much as I’d like to think he went especially mad for my unique brand of non-emaciated sex appeal, it’s likely that he approaches all girls the same way: gauge the situation, drop some names, take out your trouser monster, and see what you can get them to do.”

Since these reports emerged, the web has been abuzz, mainly with unsubstantiated anonymous postings. A typical example can be found on The Fash Pack, which stated on March 20 (without naming names) that “an increasing number of members from all levels of the fashion industry are coming forward to say they’ve felt violated by the photographer, or that they know someone who has.” As a response, Richardson made a statement on March 20 on his own website, writing that he was “really hurt by the recent and false allegations of insensitivity and misconduct.” He stressed: “I’ve always been considerate and respectful of the people I photograph and I view what I do as a real collaboration between myself and the people in front of the camera.” How much flawed reportage can twist your arm can be seen in the case of the Wall Street Journal. On March 23, Elva Ramirez in the context of an interview review involving fashion designer Marc Jacobs, falsely labeled Richardson’s statement above as an outright “apology.” Only those who bothered to click the indicated link were able to identify what it actually was: a defense of his character.

Mental and sexual abuse are very serious crimes, which demand thorough investigation. To spread these rumors as facts in magazines, papers and on the Internet and with that, causing damage to someone’s reputation, should not be taken lightly and if proven false should have repercussions.

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