It's 2021. Why are seasoned male photographers still treating female models like sex objects under the guise of education?
This all started when someone brought up a product page for a nude photography course with a focus on fetishes and BDSM. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but obviously, given the subject matter, a high degree of professionalism and respect should be established and followed by the photographer in regards to their interaction with the model, especially considering this is an educational course that will set the tone for other aspiring photographers.
And so, it was especially bothersome when I saw that product page, and it was enough to make me physically cringe. I clicked around to other tutorials on the site and was even more disgusted. Here's a sampling of the headlines for some of the products, always shown in large, bold fonts on the respective pages:
- "[Model name redacted] as you've never seen her!"
"Small Hotel Photoshoot Uncensored 18+"
"[Model name] is back!"
It was not until well down some of these pages that it was even clear who was actually teaching this course.
Pretend I haven't told you this was a photography tutorial site. If you just read that list of headlines, where would you think they came from? They sound like pornographic advertisements to me. Have you ever seen a photographic education course lead its sales pitch by naming the model? What a strange way to convince customers that your photographic and teaching skills are strong enough that they should buy your tutorial — unless that is not what you're trying to convince them of.
Clicking on the preview shows a video that opens with the sound of a heartbeat while a model's corset is laced and she draws her hand over fishnet tights. The same heartbeat sound effect returns throughout the video whenever nudity is shown, interrupted by talking head segments often preaching about professionalism. We only see evidence that this is an educational photoshoot during the multiple nudity segments for a few brief seconds; the rest of the time, the camera mostly pans over the model's body while that same heartbeat drones on. The two sides of the preview feel weirdly contradictory, with the way the nude segments are shot and edited making the appeals to professionalism feel disingenuous, as if to provide plausible deniability of the fact that the video is leading with sex, not photographic education.
The thing is, the photographer here is not some unknown who just picked up a camera. This is someone with follower/subscriber counts in the hundreds of thousands, with many years of experience. This is someone to whom people look to not just for education, but for how to behave around a model.
And to be clear, I am not accusing this photographer of being a predator or of doing anything improper while on set. However, the simple fact is that there are other people out there who are predators, and some of them carry cameras. And when we normalize this kind of treatment and representation of women, we enable those predators by creating an environment where warning signs of their behavior are less likely to be seen as crossing a boundary.
And then there are those who are not outright predators, but who are new to the trade and who look to those who are more experienced for guidance on how to behave. They know that a nude model is in a highly vulnerable position and that there are certainly boundaries that must be respected, but maybe they are unsure of what exactly those boundaries are. Can you ever touch the model just to fix their hair? Can you use words like "sexy"?
Vulnerability does not end when the shoot does, though; in fact, it is only just beginning. Because now, the photographer takes those images and presents them to an audience. And some take it one step further, becoming educators who teach others how to take similar images. And all the time, the way they show the model, the way they talk about the process, and the way they advertise their education all demand further respect of the model's vulnerability in both process and representation.
When an advertisement for education leads with a message that appeals to sexual thought instead of photographic creation, it attracts both the wrong kind of person and gives people the wrong motivation to study the genre. Because no one should ever be in a room with a nude model and a camera because of sexual desire under the pretenses of artistic photography.
There is true fine art nude photography out there, and it has its rightful place in the photography world and deserves as much respect as any other genre. This is not it, though. And yet, this is not something overtly inappropriate. It's more insidious, and in a sense, more dangerous. Because when something is overtly inappropriate, most of us will recognize that and reject it as an example of what's acceptable. Sure, there will always be predators, but this is about a different group of people.
But when something is subtler, more insidious, people are less likely to outright reject it, particularly if they are untrained and perhaps unsure of exactly what is acceptable — even if they have good intentions. And so, if people in positions of power continue to normalize behavior that is just a bit over the line or that cloaks inappropriateness in a veil of plausible deniability, up-and-comers will see that behavior and assume it is acceptable, and eventually, it is accepted by broader society. And then the boundary gets pushed just a little further, and the cycle repeats.
What saddens me is that I keep hearing the same refrain over and over: "it's [year]! Why is this still happening?" Only the year keeps changing:
"It's 2008! Why is this still happening?"
"It's 2016! Why is this still happening?"
"It's 2021! Why is this still happening?"
There are many reasons it keeps happening, unfortunately. But if those in high positions lead by example, perhaps it (and I leave the pronoun ambiguous to encompass all its ambiguity captures) will happen a bit less.