© Morgan Gielen

Fighting abuse against models:

the #MeToo movement and fashion photography

Models in the fashion industry are constantly exposed to make-up artists, hairstylists, photographers and others working behind the scenes like journalists between a wardrobe change due to the inexistence or lack of private changing areas. This makes them potential objects of predatory behaviour, as testified by supermodel Edie Campbell who reported male photographers taking pictures of the girls while getting undressed. Unfortunately, this case of abuse is not an isolated event.

Indeed, in recent years the industry has been hit by multiple scandals involving sexual harassment and assault on behalf of some of fashion’s top photographers. Non-binary and female models (both cis and trans) are sharing stories of unwanted touching, groping or massaging and non-consensual nudes in the workplace, not to mention underage booking and coercion into sexual relationships with the promise of fame.

FFU image
© Morgan Gielen

Not long after allegations against Harvey Weinstein were first reported in the press, the fashion industry entered its #MeToo and Time’s Up era as well. At last, brave accusers are putting abusers under more scrutiny than ever and forcing powerful companies and men to take on the responsibility of their own actions. Several Instagram accounts (including @shitmodelmgmt and @dietmadisonave, as well activist models’ profiles such as Cameron Russell’s – who also launched the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse) are now gathering reports of abuse and drawing up a blacklist with the names of alleged harassers. Among others and just to mention a few, photographers of great authority were accused like Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Marcus Hyde, Timur Emek and Terry Richardson, who has admitted to “interact” with models in a sexually explicit way and has been banned from working with many major magazine titles. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: almost every model has a story of a photographer, art director or stylist behaving inappropriately.

Reaction against molesters is not as easy as it looks, though. In fact, women experiencing harassment oftentimes keep quiet for fear of losing work - in the fashion industry as well as all workplaces. This was particularly true over the past decades, before feminist struggles gave survivors a voice and supported them against accusations of falsehood and isolation.

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© Morgan Gielen

Foto Femme United has already confronted the multi-layered problem in fashion photography, a fundamentally male-dominated sector, from professional discrimination against women photographers to highly objectified and sexualized portrayals of models that have noxious effects on our whole society. In addition, the industry has a strong, clear hierarchy: creators are at the top and hold power and credibility, while models are left to cope in a situation where the power is wildly imbalanced. This kind of environment would make anyone feel less important or have the feeling that those working around them would not care or believe what is happening to them. Thanks to the movement however, organizations are emerging to help models denounce and get in touch with lawyers, while fashion photographers are starting to recognize the importance of their role in making the change happen as fashion is judged largely on image and less on words.

FFU image
© Morgan Gielen

In this climate, fashion photography has adopted a more documentary-like approach and it has begun to distance itself from the one-time-leading unrealistically constructed and abstract images. Instead, the new focus is on more everyday settings, portraits and self-representation. Moreover, and this is probably even more important, models are starting to be portrayed in an active, dynamic and empowered role: this means that it is starting to defy objectification, and a set of new values is being introduced that could potentially re-educate the whole industry to a different approach to women, especially those working in fashion, from models to female photographers.

Fashion photographers are becoming aware, engaged and political, as they are no longer just seen as image-makers, but as spokespeople who hold the responsibility to lead the transformation of the industry from a once misogynistic environment to a more respectful one through the affirmation of the status of models (and women) as human beings and as professionals who must be treated as such. And what we are expectantly witnessing today is just the beginning.

FFU image
© Morgan Gielen

Out of a relevant number of female fashion photographers I wrote to, just one accepted to be a part of this. The impression is that professionals from the industry escape or do not love commenting on the issue, which was unexpected and disappointing considering that all of them were women. An enormous thank you then goes to Morgane Gielen for being the brilliant, brave and aware photographer and woman she is.

Photos by Morgane Gielen

Image credits (in order):

Cover: Frida from The Pure Mgmt styled by designer Sarah Dianne Wouters, Make-up by Hade Deneef, on location called Artkom (@fridamvdw_ - @thepuremgmt - @sarahdiannewouters - @hadedeneef_artistry - @artkom.be)

Image 01: Sanne from The Pure Mgmt (@sanneleeuwenburgh - @thepuremgmt - @hadedeneef_artistry - @sarahdiannewouters - @artkom.be)

Image 02: Mathilde Warnier, styled by designer Emma Van Den Berghe (@mathilde.wnr - @emma.vandenberghe)

Images 03 and 04: Parel Coone (@parelcoone)

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