Over the past four years, accusations of fashion photographer Terry Richardson’s creepy sexual behavior toward his models—including claims that he gets naked, requests sexual favors, and in some cases, ejaculates onto young female subjects when they’re not entirely jazzed about that situation—have mounted, without comment from Richardson himself. Today, he finally responded to what he calls “rumors” in a blog post published on the Huffington Post. Richardson’s response is half denial, half defense. He called the accusations a “witch hunt” that’s been “enabled and protected by the freewheeling and often times anonymous nature of the Internet,” then intensified by “sloppy journalists” beholden to “the on-going quest for controversy-generated page views.” But he also argued that the situations models have reported don’t constitute sexual harassment—they’re just the natural product of an artist at work.
A quick primer on the numerous complaints against Richardson: First, there was the 19-year-old model who said Richardson took off all his clothes, asked to make tea from her tampon, requested a hand job, and left her feeling like she “needed to take two showers.” And there was the other 19-year-old model to who says he took out his penis, licked her ass, and ejaculated into her eye. She says that the implicit power imbalance of the shoot (unknown teenage model vs. famous photog) made her uncomfortable bowing out as Richardson’s behavior escalated. “Even just talking about it makes me start to feel the way I felt then, which was just completely paralyzed and freaked out,” she said recently. “I was a rapist’s dream, completely naive and trusting, but passive and shy on top of that.” (She says she later contacted police about the encounter, but was told she had no case because she never said “no”). Model Liskula Cohen says she did walk off a Richardson shoot for an “upscale magazine” after he asked her to strip completely naked and simulate a blow job on one of Richardson’s friends, but not before Richardson got a couple of uncomfortable shots that she later vainly attempted to hide from public view by buying up all the magazine’s copies at her local newsstands. (She says Richardson later replaced her with a porn star who was willing to perform the real deal, and she “quit modeling for a year after that shoot”). Model Coco Rocha has vowed to never work with him again. And according to model Rie Rasmussen, Richardson “takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of … They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves.”
Richardson sees things differently. “When I moved to New York in 1990 to take pictures, a lot of my work was a documentation of my life in the East Village; it was gritty, transgressive, and the aesthetic broke with the well-lit, polished fashion images of the time,” he wrote. “Like Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and so many others before me, sexual imagery has always been a part of my photography.” Richardson says his images have always “depicted sexual situations and explored the beauty, rawness, and humor that sexuality entails” and are created “with consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work.” To suggest otherwise belittles “the spirit of artistic endeavor” and also “the real victims of exploitation and abuse.” He codes any complaints as the “discourse” that naturally arises from “provocative work.” Here’s one statement that Richardson has previously contributed to this “discourse,” in a 2007 interview published before his models started speaking out: “It’s not who you know, it’s who you blow. I don’t have a hole in my jeans for nothing.”
How useful is “transgressive” art when the artist is transgressing against his own subjects? Richardson’s not the first high-profile artist to use his career as a cover for alleged sexual offenses. The women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting them say he lured them in by taking an interest in furthering their careers as actors and models. And Roman Polanski used his camera as a tool to gain access to his 13-year-old subject-turned-victim, Samantha Geimer. Years later, his supporters used his impressive body of work to argue that he should be free of legal scrutiny. Richardson takes the tactic one step further by arguing that harassment itself is the art. In Richard’s “gritty” autobiographical documentary, anything goes, as long as the camera’s there to justify the expression.