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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 3, 2020

NZ fashion industry confronts culture of silence as fresh misconduct claims surface

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Concerns have been raised about alleged patterns of inappropriate behaviour by two fashion photographers towards young women. It could mark the beginning of a reckoning for the industry, Ensemble‘s Zoe Walker Ahwa reports for Ensemble and The Spinoff.

This story contains discussion of sexual harassment

Allegations of inappropriate behaviour and an abuse of power by a New Zealand photographer have raised fresh concerns in the local fashion industry, after similar claims about another photographer came to light in recent months.

Claims from two former models about the photographer have been revealed in an essay published on a personal website, which has been widely shared by those in the local fashion industry. This prompted further allegations from a number of women to emerge, many of which have been shared via Instagram stories.

The allegations regarding the photographer are of a pattern of manipulative behaviour towards impressionable and inexperienced young women, including nonconsensual touching; requesting that models fake orgasms in front of the camera to portray chemistry; offering wine on-set to help models feel more comfortable; a private drawer full of nude photographs of women; and that a teenager he worked with was encouraged to keep their interactions secret.

These are alleged to have happened during personal projects. Personal or creative projects are relatively common in the fashion and art world: typically for a photographer’s portfolio or model’s book (rather than for a publication or client), they are often conducted one-on-one; whereas commercial and editorial work generally takes place on set with a crew including a stylist, hair and makeup artists, assistants, et cetera.

‘We are not your dreamgirls’

In an essay published last month, Edinburgh-based model Laura Bourjac wrote of what she called  “inappropriate and insisting behaviour” from the New Zealand photographer in 2017.

Titled “Dear xxxxx, we are not your dreamgirls” (the man’s first name was mentioned but we have chosen not to include it), the piece reflects on how Bourjac had connected with the photographer over Instagram direct message to set up a photo shoot in Edinburgh; it involved consensual nudity, but moments that made Bourjac feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.

“After our shoot, as I put my clothes back on, he told me how he wanted to kiss me, how he felt a connection between us,” wrote Bourjac in the essay. “In that moment, he is in his mid 40s, I’m 23, and I wonder if he feels this sort of connection with every young girl that he meets for the first time. I wonder if he serves them the same stories of magical encounters.

“When you’re a girl, no matter how uncomfortable you feel, you smile and you convince yourself that you are being ridiculous. As a model, you tell yourself that this is good for your visibility. You don’t stand up, you don’t run away. You somehow persuade yourself that you are safe even though everything in your body tells you to run. Eventually, I did run. Only because my boyfriend was waiting for me outside. I felt that I could run because someone was waiting for me.”

The photographer did not respond to Ensemble and The Spinoff when contacted for comment.

Following her experience, Bourjac messaged an Auckland woman whose name had been mentioned to Bourjac by the photographer. They discovered they had similar stories, and stayed in touch.

Following the publication of Bourjac’s piece, the woman, who asked not to be named, shared details in an Instagram story of her experiences of feeling manipulated and uncomfortable with the photographer, including an instance of him pulling her skirt down to her knees while she was posed against a wall during a photo shoot. 

Another alleged experience was during her period. “[He] asked me to remove my clothes so he could shoot a leather harness his friend in New York had asked him to photograph. I told him that I had a tampon in and that I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. But he told me it would make for great art and that he knew I was like him like that. That I liked making art like him. Art that was confronting. So I obliged. And then I begged him never to use the images. I felt so utterly disgusted in myself. Like I had betrayed a part of my soul.” 

Her account detailed a common dynamic in the fashion industry where an older and experienced photographer asserts power over a younger woman or model through the promise of creativity and art; other times it is through the promise of more work or help breaking into the fashion industry (that is not alleged in this instance).

Bourjac said that after her essay was published, the photographer made his Instagram profile private and removed all photos featuring nudity from his website. 

Agent shares warning

Since sharing their stories, Bourjac and the Auckland woman say they have had other young women message them with their own experiences of working with the photographer and feeling uncomfortable.

They have also received messages about the behaviour of a second New Zealand fashion photographer, who was the subject of an email sent by a modelling agent to other agencies in September, regarding allegations of inappropriate behaviour. 

The private email shared concerns about allegations that are a “serious breach of the professional standards of conduct that we expect from the photographers and professionals working in our industry in New Zealand”.

It detailed agencies’ responsibilities and duty of care for the safety and wellbeing of their models, and for not allowing unprofessional or predatory behaviour to thrive or continue in the industry.

Neither the email’s sender nor the model whose alleged experience with the photographer prompted it to be written wanted to be named or would comment on the record, and we respect their wish for privacy.

The email reflects a changing approach from agencies, which have been notoriously competitive in the past, and a more collaborative and compassionate mood within the wider local fashion industry during a particularly tough year.

Globally, the fashion industry has been slow in having its own #MeToo moment, and here in New Zealand, things have been even slower.

There have been whispers of creepy or inappropriate behaviour, but often, people are fearful of talking openly and/or on the record. The industry here is extremely small. Everybody knows everybody.

In 2018 The Spinoff published an investigation into the culture surrounding local fashion and culture magazine Pavement in the late 90s and early 2000s, with allegations of sexual harassment, drugs and alcohol on set and sexual relations with underage models.

The same year, former Shortland Street actor Rene Naufahu pleaded guilty to six charges of indecently assaulting six acting students. The offending took place during private lessons, following group lessons that had been set up for young models by a local model and talent agency.

The ‘culture of silence’

Overseas there have been various reports and moments of possible breakthrough: a New York Times report about sexual misconduct claims against photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber in 2018; a report the same year from The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team with claims about other photographers and creatives; multiple stories of creepy behaviour from photographer Terry Richardson; Emily Ratajkowski’s personal essay about on-set sexual assault and the right to own her own image in September.

In 2018 Emilia Petrarca wrote a piece for The Cut titled “Fashion’s #MeToo Movement is Loudest on Instagram”, reporting on the platform’s place as a hub for fashion’s global whisper network.

The story reported on the account @ShitModelMgmt, which had shared stories from models of bad behaviour and abuse, publicly naming photographers, stylists, agents etc who had reportedly acted sexually inappropriately; and model Cameron Russell’s hashtag and call to arms, #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse.

The experiences were wide-ranging and upsetting: “There were stories of modelling agents turning a blind eye when their clients reported harassment, tales of late-night photo shoots in photographers’ apartments, nonconsensual nudes, underage bookings, unwanted touching, and promises of fame”.

The story also acknowledged the power – and flaws – of social media in exposing these behaviours, and what it means once the Instagram story has disappeared. “It’s a large ask, but it’s clear that the distribution of power in fashion needs to shift in order for real, large-scale institutional change to occur.

“In the meantime, a culture of silence in the fashion industry seems to have been broken. Because of what’s happening on Instagram and behind the scenes, people are speaking to each other and to the public. They’re sharing names, information, and holding people accountable. More models know the definitions of sexually inappropriate behaviour and that it is not, in fact, a part of the job. They know their rights. They know who to look out for; what to do if they witness said behaviour, or experience it themselves; and they know they are not alone.”

That may put the onus on models to look out for themselves rather than on those who are perpetuating these bad behaviours to stop – but it’s a start.

That – and these new allegations – raise questions about common professional standards, and whether the New Zealand fashion industry is doing enough to protect models and those who find themselves in vulnerable positions.

The absolute bare minimum standard, in relation to photo shoots in particular, is no harassment and ensuring everyone on set is treated with dignity and respect.

Common professional standards include booking all jobs through a model’s agency (not via Instagram DM), not conducting other, unrelated business on set, ensuring any nudity or skin exposure is communicated to the talent/model in advance, ensuring there is privacy when getting changed, no nonconsensual touching, no alcohol or drugs on-set, and creatives being prepared with all relevant equipment.

There is also an expectation that photos captured on a shoot are eventually shared or published – even for (especially for) non-editorial or non-commercial “creative projects”.

Common professional standards are not using a position of power to manipulate for an artistic, creative vision.

What many in the fashion industry believe these conversations – online and in real life, in DMs and on-set – highlight is the failure of New Zealand fashion’s whisper network in protecting those who need it. But the culture of silence may be breaking.

If you have any more information about the New Zealand fashion industry or photographers, get in touch confidentially with

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