Model Diary: The Suspension of Disbelief
One aspect of modeling that’s both exhilarating and terrifying, surreal and dangerous, is its suspension of reality — the participation in illusory or fantasy worlds that are created solely for the purpose of the photograph. For each photoshoot, the photographer, working alone or with the client or art director, creates a specific narrative with its own mise-en-scene, characters, and meanings embedded in the photos. My job is to help create — along with the hair, makeup, and stylist team — that story by acting it out.
I do believe that modeling, in its need for performance, is similar to acting. But unlike a movie that has a well-defined, scripted character, the subject of a photoshoot isn’t so clearly determined. I often don’t know what the narrative is or who I’m supposed to be until I’m there in front of the camera, being directed by the photographer. This is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, because I have no control over what’s expected of me. How many times have I come out of a shoot wondering, for better or for worse, What have I just done?
From acting like a spy on the roof of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and taking my clothes off in a setting reminiscent of a Botticelli painting, to kissing strangers and swimming in the ocean in designerwear, I have no time to prepare for — and often not even enough time to consent to — the part before I’m put on the spot and asked to live up to expectations. I usually embrace the challenge, and try to use the context in some empowering, creative way, even if it involves nudity or sexual innuendo. The relationship between photographer and model is similar to that of director and actor: you do what your director tells you. But with no fixed script, you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into. So what happens when you realize, I don’t want to do this?
Only once has the act of throwing myself into the role, into that suspended reality, made me uncomfortable, and it was when a photographer tried to get with me after insisting that I needed sexy (clothed) photos for my book. I stopped him, of course, as soon as he tried to move beyond the camera and into my personal space, but the fact that I had waited for the fourth wall to break for the sake of a narrative that he was trying to sell me made me feel stupid and victimized. I walked out in that instance. (It was just a test shoot, which I agreed to only because my agency insisted I go work with the photographer, arguing that he takes great shots — when I told my agency that he tried to get with me, they claimed that they stopped working with him. I hope it’s true.) Moreover, on my way out, the photographer asked me to sign a contract saying that he had the right to use any of the photos, in any context, wherever he wants, for however long he wants. The photos weren’t too risqué, but I obviously did not sign; instead I crossed out his contract and wrote that I have the right to approve or disapprove of any of the photos he wants to use (I was only ballsy enough to do this because it was a test shoot and not a job). I still haven’t seen any of the photos, though who knows, in this digital age, images can go public without my say in the matter. This is a risk that comes with the job, and as smart as I’m trying to be about it, I’m hoping that it won’t prevent me from future career plans.
In that instance, I feel like I held my own, but how many other girls hadn’t? I’ve since visited the photographer’s website, on which he shows a series of topless girls rolling around on the floor looking scared. And what if it wasn’t a test, but a job with a top photographer? The ones to whom our agents tell us we must comply if we want them to like us and hire us again? We’ve all heard the Terry Richardson horror stories. In those instances, it’s not just the photographer and model in an isolated space (a position that I refuse to be in, ever again). There’s a crew; a client; a team that a model puts her faith in for the duration of the shoot. When did it become okay to relinquish one’s rights for the sake of success?
Surrealism best describes the modeling experience in general — moving from city to city, acquaintances posing as friends, sleeping in a bed that isn’t really one’s own. Week after week, it becomes exhausting. I’m tired of these suspended realities. I’m tired of traveling, of being ‘on tour,’ as a musician friend once likened it. I’m tired of playing a role. I miss being myself, in a real home, with my real friends, who actually know me, and not just as a character I’ve been paid to portray.