Emily Ratajkowski's allegations against Jonathan Leder exposes how artist-muse relation, consent are viewed

'As I read Emily Ratajkowski’s tale, I thought of many of the stories I had heard amongst the models I had interviewed that struck a similar chord,' writes Manjima Bhattacharjya in her monthly column, 'Curious Fashion'

Manjima Bhattacharjya November 21, 2020 13:32:38 IST
Emily Ratajkowski's allegations against Jonathan Leder exposes how artist-muse relation, consent are viewed

Emily Ratajkowski at an event in Los Angeles in 2018. AP/File Photo

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Editor's note: A New York Times report dated 11 November details various allegations by Kathleen Sorbara, Danielle Hettara and Nola Palmer against photographer Jonathan Leder, who Emily Ratajkowski accused of harassment in a September essay published in The Cut. Leder did not share a comment for the NYT story, although he has previously refuted Ratajkowski's allegations as "false and salacious".

This September, the internet was stunned into an uncomfortable silence when an essay by supermodel Emily Ratajkowski in The Cut went viral. The retweets and reposts came bundled with trigger warnings or just warnings, that it was an incredibly difficult read but also an important one.

The essay starts out quite innocuously about Ratajkowski (or @emrata as she is known on social media) and her boyfriend trying to acquire an image of hers that goes on sale, “created” by a photographer who has blown up Ratajkowski’s own Instagram posts to make “paintings” going for $80,000 each. The artwork becomes a bone of contention between her and the (now ex) boyfriend, who she then has to alarmingly pay off to stop him from sharing nude photos of her on his phone. Even as you think, oh so this is about revenge porn, it takes an unexpected turn.

Ratajkowski narrates an experience from many years ago, when she was a 20-year-old model. Although she’d been modelling from the age of 14, she had only just started to take it seriously and make a career of it. Ratajkowski is called for an overnight shoot to a well-known photographer Jonathan Leder’s home out in the Catskills countryside. She arrives alone by bus, and is relieved to see an older woman, a make-up artist, who will be spending the night there. As the day and then the evening and then the night ominously unfolds, you know that something terrible is going to happen. Ratajkowski unknowingly finds herself in a complicated situation where she discovers this is a lingerie shoot, then is asked to pose in the nude and then gets groped as the night wears on (and on, and on).

Many years later, the polaroids from that night circulate out of Ratajkowski’s control. Even as she is pursuing the control of those images through whichever means she has at her disposal, she is processing what happened that night at the photographer’s house and the missed cues that seem obvious in retrospect. A sense of foreboding and being watched, that it’s too late in the night to do shoots, that it’s only her and the photographer, that it turns out to be a lingerie shoot, something she hasn’t been informed of before.

Ratajkowski’s story is familiar for many models.

Even those who are famous and powerful like her, and especially for those who are struggling to make it in the fashion and modelling industry. As I read Ratajkowski’s tale, I thought of many of the stories I had heard amongst the models I had interviewed that struck a similar chord. For instance, the vulnerability of being young and trying hard to come across as a mature, sexy woman-of-the-world. It’s a performance of what ‘being a model’ means in their heads. At 20 (or in their early 20s, as models predominantly tend to be), we know this is not true. (But has anyone told young models that it’s okay to be awkward and unsure and be themselves?) Ratajkowski speaks of her desire “to seem older and wiser than I was”. She says, “I knew that impressing these photographers was an important part of building a good reputation.”

Then, are the attempts to appear as a professional that puts them in dangerous situations. Even though Ratajkowski has not been informed that this is a lingerie shoot, she does not want to come across as unprofessional. When Leder asks her seamlessly to pose in the nude, she is alarmed but in her eagerness to appear as a professional, she does not refuse. She says, “In the industry I’d been taught that it was important to earn a reputation as hardworking and easygoing. ‘You never know who they’ll be shooting with next!’ my agent would remind me. ” It is a hair-raising moment when she recalls, “He was turned away from me when he said, ‘Let’s try naked now’.’’ There is another reason she agrees: the fetishisation of her body already in action in the industry. She writes, “I’d been told by plenty of photographers and agents that my body was one of the things that made me stand out among my peers. My body felt like a superpower.”

Would it have been different if Ratajkowski had learnt to say no when she was uncomfortable with something? If it was considered okay in the industry for the models to do so? Or if she saw her right to refuse or demand more information before the shoot from her agent as legitimate?

Years later the photographer publishes a book of the polaroids he takes that night. The book is called Emily Ratajkowksi.

Ratajkowski’s effort to stop Leder from publishing a book of her photos in the nude (in her name!) is not out of modesty or shame or wanting to not have people see her nude pictures. What Ratajkowski wants is to control her own narrative.

It is about power and powerlessness, inherent in how we define an artist and his ‘muse’. The ‘artist’, in this case the male photographer, is the one in control of the narrative. With impunity, Leder repeatedly uses Ratajkowski’s images in exhibitions, books, and more books one after the other to further his own celebrity and career. He controls how the image is viewed too when he titles the nude series ‘iCarly’, Carly being the character a teenage Ratajkowski plays in a TV show, invoking male fantasies of a sexy schoolgirl. Meanwhile, the ‘muse’ doesn’t matter. She is a nonperson as far as the artist is concerned (or a ‘mannequin’ as I found in my own research with models).

It is also about the meaning of a model’s consent.

Ratajkowski says, “When I agreed to shoot with Jonathan, I had consented only for the photos to be printed in the magazine they were intended for… I knew I had never signed anything; I had never agreed to anything. No one had asked me.” Often, a model’s consent is considered irrelevant. The fact that Ratajkowski consented that night and to single time use of those photos only has no meaning to Leder. He believes the photos of her, are his. She can never forget that the photos are of her. When she buys one photo from the Instagram artist to hang on her wall, it is ironic that this is the only way she can make her own image, hers.

The lack of industry accountability, and the limited role of the modelling agency is striking, even though the agency has been touted as the answer to all of the industries’ problems. The agent and agency emerge as ineffective protections — both for what Ratajkowski goes through that night with Leder, as well as later, when the pictures are used without permission. Her agent insists that she has not signed any contract on Ratajkowski‘s behalf to allow wide circulation of the images. But is there really a culture of contracts in the modelling world, that are meaningful? It makes developments like the Model Alliance stand out as crucial.

Ratajkowski turns to the courts in an expensive battle, initially having faith in the system and in due process, but soon loses steam. Meanwhile the book is sold out and reprinted thrice. Leder releases another book of her images, and then a third with outrageous impunity. Ratajkowski’s final act of resistance is her essay in which she realises the importance of finding your voice. It is ironic that in the chase of images, and after a lifetime of work based on the visual, it is through words that Ratajkowski finds her voice and is able to, finally, own her narrative.

Manjima is a feminist researcher, writer, activist, and the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018).

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