How to Stay Safe Among the Horrific Scope of Sexual Assault in the Modeling Industry

Models and photographers who shoot nude or implied images have every right to do so, but this industry is full of some bad people with bad intentions. Here are some tips on how to stay safe.

The Photography Industry Has Lots of Predators

Sexual assault, in general, is an epidemic. According to the US Department of Justice, a woman is sexually assaulted in the US every 68 seconds. If you know at least four women, chances are that you know someone who has been subject to a completed (14.8% of all women in the U.S.) or attempted rape (2.8% of all women in the U.S). You can find more statistics on the RAINN website. And these numbers don’t even include the non-reported numbers. According to a study performed by the Model Alliance, a New York-based agency dedicated to advocating for model safety, nearly one in three models (29.7%) has experienced inappropriate touching during a shoot.

The photography industry by its nature creates giant loopholes and room for people with bad intentions. For example, according to a study found on the National Institute of Health website, at New York Fashion Week in 2018, less than half of the models were given private areas to change. Some were forced to change in areas where photographers were taking pictures.

There are a lot of photographers who, once they buy a camera and hold it in their hands, suddenly get this new feeling of control where they can tell a woman how to pose and what to wear (or not wear). There are a lot of photographers who, when they see a model dressed attractively and smiling into the camera, their brain gets confused and they feel that they need to enter into flirt mode. All of this is compounded by the fact that in this industry, a lot of models, in the normal course of business, seek out photographers to take bikini, lingerie, or nude/implied nude photos. The entire situation creates an environment where predators can get paired up with models and models get hurt.

For the sake of simplicity, throughout this article, I will be using male pronouns to refer to photographers and female pronouns to refer to models, even though it is important to note that men can be assaulted and harassed at shoots and women can also do the harassing.

The Harm Is not Always Obvious

The vast majority of the time, the harm that is caused at photo shoots is not physical harm. It is psychological harm that does not involve bruises or touching. The psychological harm can fall into a few general categories: 1) when a model feels pressured into doing something that she did not want to do, or 2) a model is demoralized by being harassed.

Some of you might be thinking: “What do you mean, she’s asked to do something that she didn’t want to do? Give me a break! She can just say she doesn’t want to! She’s an adult!” According to the Model Alliance, 86.8% of models have been asked to shoot nude without any prior agreement. Of those models, 27.5% ultimately shot nude when they didn’t want to.

For all of those in the There’s-No-Harm-In-Asking camp, when you ask a model in the middle of a shoot to shoot nude, or even to push the boundaries beyond what she feels comfortable with and what was agreed upon, you are unfairly placing a fork in the road in front of that model and forcing her to make a split decision and evaluate the following on the spot while you wait there with your camera staring at her: 1) Is this normal in the industry? Am I making too big of a deal out of it?  2) Am I going to make him mad if I say no? What happens if he’s mad and he has all of the pictures? 3) I’d like to work with him again. If I say no, am I cutting off my chances? 4) Is he going to tell his friends to not shoot with me? 5) How do I politely explain to him that I am a model, but I’m not comfortable changing or being in my underwear or being nude or partially nude in front of him? 6) Is it going to kill the energy if I say no? 7) What if I only kind of don’t care, but I’m worried that because we never discussed this in any of our planning, what if he pushes it further while I’m already half-naked?

Approaching a model to shoot nude or in revealing clothing is not by itself inappropriate if it is done timely and respectfully. It is unfair and puts this pressure on the model to make these decisions on the spot when it is raised during a shoot for the first time. If there is any point where the photographer feels that the shoot might involve nudity or pushing the boundaries, that should always be discussed beforehand so that the model is not under undue pressure and still has an easy option to back out of the shoot, set boundaries, or at least think about it for a while.

Making Matters Worse

The damage is further compounded by the gaslighting that takes place from even friends, family members, or anyone who might hear the model out about her experience.

Gaslighting is a manipulative psychological attack, intentional or unintentional, to make someone think they are crazy. If a model tells someone that she went to a shoot and felt pressured into shooting nude and ultimately said yes, undoubtedly, she will face a lot of gaslighting attacks in the form of: “What? You should have just said no! It’s your fault, silly!” or “So what, who cares, it’s not that big of a deal.” Gaslighting isolates the model and makes her the victim of the harassment and then also a victim of isolation and self-doubt, which lead to depression and anxiety. This is all caused by a photographer’s whim to see someone naked or partly naked coupled with a lack of courtesy to properly address the issue well in advance of the shoot.

Ways to Stay Safe

If you are not a model, you might not understand the common things that models have to do to protect themselves, like sharing their location with friends on their phones and forwarding booking details to friends so the friends know who to look up if something happens to the model. It’s disgusting and heart-wrenching that this type of barbaric predatory attitude of entitlement to harass women is still happening in the same decade that people are planning the steps to colonize Mars.

Although there are no guaranteed ways to avoid being harmed, here are some red flags that models should look out for when working with a photographer you don’t know, especially when being asked to shoot risqué content:

  1. Are the tags dead links? So, you look at a photographer’s Instagram and there are great pictures of models there, and you would be honored to have pictures like that taken of you. You go to the individual posts, and the models are listed and tagged. But a common tactic among predatory photographers is to steal photos, tag models to make the posts look more legitimate, but use dead tags that don’t actually go to a real account. The idea is that enough models will only go far enough to look at the posts, but not dig deeper and go to each model’s page because it is so much more time-consuming to do so. If a significant number of the links are dead links for the models, you might be in danger.
  2. Grooming. Grooming is a tactic used by sexual predators to slowly erode away the wall between two people to allow a more familiar relationship where that relationship would usually be inappropriate. For example, a photographer should not be having a sexualized/flirtatious relationship with a model he is just meeting for the first time (or probably ever, but I’ll just leave it at that). Common grooming tactics photographers use to erode that wall would be using affectionate words like “Hey, Honey” or “Hey, beautiful.” It can include also the language used in directing the model when referring to body parts or how good she looks in certain outfits or poses. Offering a model alcohol before a shoot can also be a grooming behavior because it is not typical in first-time interactions between clients and professionals and makes it more like a first date than a professional interaction. The idea for grooming is to start slow and see how the other person responds to the behavior, and then either wear the other person down or progressively increase the frequency or intensity until the professional wall is gone. I know a lot of photographers who offer wine or champagne before a shoot, depending on the type of shoot. I know a lot of photographers, especially when it’s a female photographer shooting a female model, who will use more relaxed language when telling a model how sexy she looks. I’m not saying that if you do these things, you are a sexual predator or even a bad person. I am saying that these are things that some sexual predators do, and if you see them happening, it is something you should take note of and be aware of. Grooming can start in the DMs in the planning phase as well, so watch out for those early communications.
  3. Anonymous accounts. There is no name on the Instagram account or website and no way to see who the photographer actually is. There are a lot of reasons a photographer might want to remain anonymous. It might be a side gig for an accountant who doesn’t want his clients to see his artsy nude photos. But this is also a factor that models should look at as part of the whole equation. A lot of predatory photographers will make accounts with no actual name because it makes it easier to close the account and start again when the first account gets too many complaints. It also makes it harder to go report any wrongdoing if you don’t know the photographer’s actual name. If a photographer wants you to put trust in him to shoot mostly naked with him alone, he should trust you enough to let you know his name.
  4. Don’t rely on follower count or fame. Marcus Hyde, a Los Angeles-based photographer who had worked with Kim Kardashian and Ariana Grande, was exposed in 2019 for his behavior towards the models he shot. You can’t find his account now because Instagram removed it after all of the public complaints of sexual assault and sexual harassment. He had over a million followers and a blue checkmark next to his name! Someone with a large follower count and an established profile or online presence certainly has a lot more to lose than a brand-new account, but just keep in mind that there are exceptions.
  5. Don’t rely on cherry-picked testimonials. I’m sure Jeffrey Dahmer was nice to at least some people who would have had nice things to say about him. If there are testimonials on a photographer’s page, don’t feel like you are not allowed to ask other people. Ask photographers and models if anyone has heard of this person and what their experiences have been.
  6. Ask if it’s okay to bring a friend or companion. There are sometimes when it would not be appropriate to bring a companion to a shoot. However, if a photographer wants to shoot someone nude or almost nude, and that person wants to bring someone to feel safe or comfortable, that is a pretty reasonable and standard request in this industry. Even if you do not plan on bringing someone, ask the photographer if it would be okay if you did bring someone to gauge what the reaction is. Also, ask if it’s okay if you record the whole thing for BTS for your social media. Say that you want to put together a time-lapse or a little reel of some BTS moments, so you need to record everything. If the photographer gets upset at the idea, that is a red flag.
  7. Ask if the photographer has a plan or a mood board. Having a specific concept is one way to establish boundaries before the shoot. Make sure you establish beforehand what the boundaries are going to be, what the wardrobe is going to be (and not be), what the poses are going to be. Establishing these things early forces a conversation about the theme of the shoot and lets the model know exactly when the shoot is going off-script. It’s also an excellent time to talk about the model’s level of comfort if it is foreseeable that there might be some NSFW content involved.
  8. Driving to remote locations. Are you shooting in a remote location? If so, are you both driving together to save gas? If things get weird, do you have a way to leave on your own? Are you shooting in the desert where there might be no reception and no street addresses? Carpooling can be an efficient way to shoot in exotic locations, but keep in mind that it has the potential to leave you without a way to escape an uncomfortable situation.
  9. Does the photographer’s portfolio align with yours? If you are a lifestyle blogger type and the photographer’s page is mostly half-naked women mid-twerk, question whether this project will yield photos that align with your modeling goals and the aesthetics of your page. Likewise, if you do a lot of nude modeling and the photographer’s portfolio is nothing but macro pictures of flowers, you should also take note of that. There is nothing wrong with genre-hopping, but ask for examples of portraits that that photographer took so you can evaluate whether you want to be the experiment for a flower photographer to learn how to shoot people.

Tips for Photographers

Here are some tips to remember for each model shoot to ensure the interactions between model and photographer remain professional and the model feels safe:

  1. Assume the model is just there for pictures. Unfortunately, this is not as basic as it should be. Assume that, no matter how the model is dressed, how she is posing, or what kind of facial expressions she is using, that she is at the shoot solely for the purpose of getting pictures and not for being hit on, asked out, or touched. Further, assume that it probably happens to the model a lot, and if you have not worked together before, she probably has some level of apprehension about whether she is going to be harassed during the shoot.
  2. Keep in mind that the model might have a history of assault. You do not know the model’s history or what types of behaviors might be triggering past assault or harassment. As a boudoir photographer, I have had several clients reveal to me that one of the reasons they are doing a boudoir shoot is because they have been a victim of rape or sexual assault in the past and are trying to take back control of being comfortable expressing their sexuality in a safe environment. However, most models aren’t going to reveal that information to someone they just met, so a photographer looking to use a photo shoot as a way to hit on models could have horrendous consequences. As stated above, one in six women in their lifetime will have been a victim of a completed or attempted rape. Keeping everything professional at all times makes it so any history of trauma never becomes an issue.
  3. Treat every model with the same level of respect you would treat anyone else who is on the clock doing their job. Even if it is a trade shoot or the model simply does it as a hobby, you should still treat the model with the same level of courtesy and respect that you would treat a bank teller or a cashier. Do not flirt. Use appropriate language. There are professional ways to build a rapport with a woman and tell her that her pose is perfect or she needs to turn slightly to the left without flirting or using inappropriate language. 
  4. Never say or do anything you wouldn’t do with others present. Imagine that you are being recorded or that there is another person present during the entire shoot. Do not say or do anything that you would be embarrassed to have others find out. Act as if your reputation is on the line because it is.
  5. Pre-shoot discussions. Have a discussion before the shoot about poses and wardrobe. Some outfits might be too revealing if shot from certain angles or with certain poses. Go over all of these things before the shoot starts to ensure that everyone is working within their level of comfort.

The Most Important Thing to Remember

Trust your gut. Keep in mind that you have a lot to lose if the shoot goes wrong and more opportunities to shoot will come later. Do not put yourself at risk for a photo shoot. Setting firm boundaries for your level of comfort is more normal than you think, and it’s absolutely okay to say no to an idea or suggestion.

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