Graffiti at the corner of Broome and Allen Streets, NYC
Last weekend, the celebrity photographer and self-styled louche Terry Richardson apparently sent a Facebook message to British model Emma Appleton in which he apparently offered to shoot her for Vogue in exchange for sex. Appleton then tweeted a screengrab of the message, which was quickly picked up by digital outlets that gleefully framed it as the latest in a cavalcade of “Uncle Terry’s” outrages. The resulting online shitstorm prompted some of the 48-year-old’s past and present employers, most notably Vogue, to publicly distance themselves from him. Then on Thursday, an online forensic expert concluded what Richardson’s spokesperson had maintained from the outset: The Facebook account did not belong to Richardson; the message was fake.
The reporting of the hoax has been unapologetic, for the most part. “An all-too-believable hoax” said his dogged detractors jezebel.com in a headline. But although Richardson’s sexual advances toward his female models have been reported for years, evidence of him breaking any law has not surfaced, and no formal charges—beyond being a creep and a weirdo—have been leveled against him.
Internet shaming may feel cathartic, but what does it accomplish?
It would appear that Richardsonian horror stories tend to fall into two categories. There are instances in which Richardson or his assistant(s) ask a model to do something sexual and they refuse, vowing never to work with him again. There are stories in which the model is asked to do certain things and do them, only to voice regret years after the fact. Rarer and more concerning are reports of Richardson actually imposing himself on models’ persons by surprise. Charlotte Waters’ description of Richardson licking her ass without warning at a 2009 shoot is an example of this. But because she did not say “no,” the NYPD told her that it could not be classified as a crime when she contacted them about the incident five years later, in March 2014.
It was Jamie Peck’s 2010 article on The Gloss (which is now owned by the same company as Made Man) that first stoked broad outrage about how Richardson operated at these shoots. In a single photo session, Peck recounted that she had the agency to refuse one request (to remove her tampon so that Richardson could brew a cup of tea with it) but minutes later went along with his suggestion to give him a hand job to orgasm. In her account, Peck described an out-of-body experience in which she passively watched herself tug Richardson off from some remove. Her latter-day explanation for doing so was that she didn’t want to be “the killjoy in the room.” In the wake of Peck’s story, Jezebel published a request for more people to come forward with stories of Richardson’s transgressions. One submission contained a phrase that echoed Peck’s passivity: “. . . he had me go down on him . . .” The wording implies that the anonymous author had no bearing on the act she’s describing.
I have worked in New York media for more than a decade (never with Terry Richardson). I have spent much of that time as an editor of, and contributor to, publications that are emphatically progressive in terms of gender roles. I grew up with a feminist mother and sister whom I adore. As a result, I find it very tricky to defend a man who has spent the past 15 years honing his image as a sexual boogeyman. But over the past week, I’ve watched a familiar agitation cycle start whirring away, then stall out in a lie, and I find it frustrating. Richardson may be a skeeve, but that is not a crime, and even skeeves deserve due process. As of now, to the best of our knowledge, he has broken no law. Internet shaming may feel cathartic, but in this case it’s been going on for four years, and what has it accomplished?
So I would like to make a constructive suggestion. It seems that adult women are coming to Terry Richardson’s studio under the strange assumption that it’s not within their rights to say no to anything and everything they don’t want to do. If the agencies, managers and publicists who book models for Richardson’s shoots can’t convey the opposite to the women they send to his studio, I suggest that Richardson be proactive about the situation by making models sign an acknowledgement that they are under no obligation to do entertain the requests of him or his staff, and any refusal will not have undesirable consequences for their burgeoning careers.