Sara Ziff began modeling at the age of 14 in New York. At her third casting, in the East Village, models went in to see the photographer one by one. When it was her turn, the photographer said he needed to see her without her shirt. Then he said it was still hard for him to imagine her for the story, so he asked her to take her pants off, too. Nervous, just 14 years old, and eager to succeed in her new profession, she obliged.
Stories like this are all too common in the modeling industry, though unlike anorexia or body-image issues, they’re hardly publicized. Ziff aims to expose them in the documentary she made called Picture Me. Over five years, she took cameras backstage at shows, to parties, and on photo shoots. Her now-ex-boyfriend, a filmmaker, came with her and shot, too. She gave cameras to fellow models and asked them to share their stories. Model Sena Cech described a disturbing casting with one of the industry’s top photographers:
Halfway through the meeting Cech is asked to strip. She does as instructed and takes off her clothes. Then the photographer starts undressing as well. “Baby — can you do something a little sexy,” he tells her. The photographer’s assistant, who is watching, eggs her on. What’s supposed to be the casting for a high-end fashion shoot turns into something more like an audition for a top-shelf magazine. The famous photographer demands to be touched sexually. “Sena — can you grab his cock and twist it real hard,” his assistant tells her. “He likes it when you squeeze it real hard and twist it.”
Cech did it, but turned down the job because she feared the audition was only a taste of what the shoot would be like. The photographer never wanted to work with her again. Ziff explains, “Pretty much every girl I have talked to has a story like it, but no one talks about it. It’s all under the radar because people are embarrassed and because the people in the industry who are doing these things are much more powerful, and the model is totally disposable. She could be gone in two years.” Young models don’t always have anyone to turn to. Just think of the enormous pressures placed on a poor 15-year-old from Latvia who is supporting her family and barely speaks English. Ziff continues:
“I’ve done shoots naked, totally naked. They sell it to you as: ‘Here’s this great artist and he wants to take your portrait.’ I had to switch off the voice in my head that said: ‘Do you really want to do this?’ When you’re being paid a lot of money and you want to appear cool you really don’t want to show any resistance to going with it.
“But at the end of the day I used to wonder: what’s the difference between doing a shoot in your underwear for Calvin Klein and being a stripper? Obviously you are compromising yourself. How far am I willing to go? How much am I willing to show for a big fat cheque?”
A model union could protect models from situations like these. A year and a half ago, two models based in Britain set one up that campaigns for better working conditions, holiday and sickness pay, and protection in case of injury. But they still have a lot of work to do.