Just a few days after another model went public with her accusations against Terry Richardson, brands like Equinox and H&M, which had had long relationships with the photographer, announced that they would no longer work with Richardson. While Richardson has been accused before of impropriety during his photo shoots, he has never responded directly to accusations, and both he and his career have seemed impervious to any and all allegations directed his way. This is due in no small part to Richardson’s celebrity, and also to the celebrity of many of his subjects and friends. And it is not an accident that there aren’t accusations levied at Richardson by women like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Beyoncé. Instead, it’s women like this latest accuser, Charlotte Waters, whose relative anonymity did nothing to protect her from Richardson, but apparently allowed Richardson to feel protected from ever having to face any consequences for his behavior toward her.
Well, until now, that is. Now that there is growing pressure being placed on brands and publications (notably Haper’s Bazaar and Vogue) to drop Richardson from their roster of photographers, meaning that these accusations might have economic and professional ramifications, Richardson has decided to end his silence. And, in following the recent example set by another powerful man accused of sexual misconduct (hey, Woody Allen), Richardson has decided to do this with an open letter. And, interestingly enough, Richardson’s defense is remarkably similar to that of Allen’s, in that he claims to have long felt that the best way to handle these accusations would be to ignore them because he “felt that to dignify them with a response was a betrayal of [his] work and [his] character.” But due to the recent accusations, Richardson decided to make “a humble attempt at correcting these rumors, because [he has] come to realize that absent [his] voice in the conversation, all that remain are the lies.”
Richardson acknowledges that his work is sexually charged, comparing his work to that of photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton, but claims to have only worked “with consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work, and as is typical with any project, everyone signed releases.” He goes on to say that he has “never used an offer of work or a threat of rebuke to coerce someone into something that they did not want to do.” So then why is the media so full of reports of Richardson’s misconduct? And why have so many women come forward, claiming that he took advantage of them? Well, page views, of course! Richardson feels that he is the victim of an “emotionally-charged witch hunt,” and that because of the “freewheeling and often times anonymous nature of the Internet, people have become comfortable concocting hate-filled and libelous tales about [his] professional and personal lives.” Richardson further writes that while he admits that the sexual content of his work will always make some people uncomfortable, and the he “values the discourse that arises from [it. He] can only hope for this discourse to be informed by fact, so that whether you love [his] work or hate it, you give it, and [him], the benefit of the truth.”
The problem with this, of course, is that (as is the case with many cases of sexual misconduct) there exist only the stories of the two people—the accuser and the accused—who were involved, and so while Richardson asks that we believe him, he is also implicitly asking us to not believe the women who have come forward with stories of abuse. Richardson doesn’t necessarily want the truth to be believed, he wants his truth to be believed. And just like so many other powerful men who have stood accused of something, Richardson is counting on the fact that his celebrity will protect him, because, after all, if Beyoncé likes him, how bad can he be? Woody Allen did a similar thing in his open letter, asking the public to believe him because it’s him. And by doing this, both men imply that their accusers are just women who are out to get them for vindictive reasons that have no bearing in reality. Richardson compounds this by also appealing to the idea that artists shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the rest of society, because art is “challenging… divisive… and courts controversy.” But this is bullshit. This isn’t a debate about the content or quality of Richardson’s art. This is about how Richardson has treated the women he worked with, and specifically, the least powerful among his many subjects. Many people have dismissed Richardson’s accusers because they weren’t “real models,” and so they should have known what they were getting into. But Richardson never would have acted the same way with “real models” or the myriad celebrities with whom he’s worked. Predators go after the weak, and then feel secure in the knowledge that the weak will rarely speak up, and that they can continue to prey on whomever they want. But Charlotte Waters has spoken up. And we owe it to her to listen. And to all the other women who never quite found their voices.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen