Models use closed Facebook groups to identify sexually inappropriate photographers

A closed Facebook group launched last spring to identify problematic photographers has gathered steam as more models speak out about sexual harassment on the job.

Closed Facebook groups have become important tool in identifying photographers to avoid

Drew Catherine, middle, started a closed Facebook group to create a private forum where her model friends, including Cass Elliot, left, and Kristie Abi-Najem, right, can crowdsource information about Canadian photographers. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

Drew Catherine has had countless uncomfortable encounters with photographers in her three years working as a freelance model in Toronto.

"I had one photographer who reached up and just outright started touching me," she said. "I've had photographers ask me to participate in sexual things with them while they take photos."

She also said, "I've almost been locked in a bank vault."

The 22-year-old said stories from other Toronto-based models are "heart-wrenching" and speak of "rape, of abuse, photographers selling their images without permission, taking photos of them in dressing rooms."

Catherine, who often poses semi-nude, was so fed up with the constant harassment — as well as photographers withholding photos or not paying her — that she started the Facebook group Toronto-Ontario Photographer Reviews.

Its tagline: "Safety comes first!"

It's a closed group where both female and male models can share their experiences with specific photographers and warn others about inappropriate behaviour.

"When you're new, you're very powerless in this industry, and that's what I want to change," Catherine said. "If my sister ever got into modelling, I'd want her to have this group."

Freelance models who aren't affiliated with an agency often have to take extra care in researching the photographers who approach them with work. (JRodriguez/YouTube)

'We're there for the camera - end of story'

Catherine said the group functions "almost like a union or an agency to fall back on." 

The support system is even more vital for models who, like her, are on the fringe of the industry working freelance and booking their own shoots, often through social media.

The struggle to properly research photographers and decide whether or not to work with them is not new to 25-year-old Cass Elliot. At the beginning of her career, she modelled with an agency that she says provided something of a safety blanket. Now, she works freelance.

Elliot has developed a system in order to stay safe, which includes identifying a friend she can get to call her — feigning an emergency — if the shoot turns awkward.

"I always try to take a chaperone with me," Elliot said. "If I am travelling to a shoot by myself, I'll make sure that somebody knows where I'm going — the address, the first and last name of the photographer… so that if something does go wrong, you have an idea of where to start looking. Heaven forbid."

According to the models, some photographers "feel like they can do whatever they want," particularly when a model is undressing for the camera.

"They see it as an invitation," Catherine said. But she's clear about her reasons for being there. "We're not there for you [the photographer], we're there for the camera – end of story."

Monitoring for libel 

The Facebook group, which was started last spring before the global conversation on sexual harassment exploded, counts more than 400 members. Catherine said the goal is to protect models, not tarnish reputations. 

To combat concerns of libel, Catherine said comments are closely monitored by the six administrators, who are the only ones with the power to create new posts.
The Toronto-Ontario Photographers Review is a closed Facebook group made up of models only. (Facebook)

They name specific photographers who have raised concerns, but Catherine said if there is an allegation of assault, she does her best to research the allegation and contact the photographer concerned to get his part of the story.

"We don't slander photographers. We don't allow people to talk poorly about who they are, we're talking about the experience that the model had – fully and truthfully." 

Catherine said she has looked into four claims of assault levelled against certain photographers. In three cases, she concluded the account was worth including in a post on the closed group's wall. In the fourth case, she decided the model had fabricated the story. 

The group has provoked backlash from photographers, some of whom have started their own closed group in response. That's why Catherine insists on a "secret, quiet spot" for models to speak freely.

A duty to speak out

After two decades in the fashion world, Marianne Trudel feels she can finally speak freely.

The Montreal-based model only recently felt comfortable enough to tell her story of an alleged assault by disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. It happened in the empty upstairs section of a trendy New York City restaurant in 2008.

"He pulled me towards him really rough and just started kissing me," Trudel said. "As I'm pushing him back and saying no, then he reached for my breast and started telling me, 'Well, show me your tits, then,' and opening my blouse." 

Trudel filed an official complaint with the New York Police Department, whose investigators flew to Montreal at the end of October to take her statement. The allegation hasn't been proven in court.
Montreal model Marianne Trudel credits the #MeToo movement with giving her the courage to speak out about her experiences as a model in New York, including an alleged assault by former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. (Marianne Trudel)

With the #MeToo movement in full swing, Trudel felt compelled to reveal publicly what she had experienced working as a model. That includes an interaction with a Montreal-based photographer who she said wanted to trade professional photos for sex. Trudel also recalled photographers asking her to pinch her nipples for effect or pressuring her to show more skin, requests that are often tolerated in the self-regulated fashion business.

"It's almost a given," Trudel said. "You will have situations where you feel like you have to get closer, play a little game and if you don't, you feel like you're the difficult one."

A 2012 study of working female models by New York-based advocacy group Model Alliance found that 30 per cent had experienced inappropriate touching while modelling and 28 per cent felt pressured to have sex on the job. According to the study, most elected to keep quiet and tell no one. 

Trudel is now consulting with a newly launched group called Industry Uncovered to expose the darker side of the fashion business.

"It was a duty of mine," Trudel said about her need to speak out and work for concrete change in her industry. She believes staying silent protects predators. "I don't want to do that anymore."

She's heartened by efforts from other activists, including a push to strengthen legislation for models in the state of New York, where she worked for years. Most models there are classified as contract workers and therefore don't have the same protection against workplace harassment as full-time employees.

In Canada, human rights legislation considers contract workers on par with full-time employees, but Toronto-based employment lawyer Janice Rubin said "enforcement is where the rubber hits the pavement." 

As in many fields, she said, complaints from models don't often make it into the system because of a fear of losing contracts. That's due to the precarious nature of the work and a power imbalance between models and clients, particularly when the models are working freelance. 

Models are often pressured to show more skin at casting sessions in order to land the contract. (Reuters/Shailesh Andrade)

Consumer Protection Ontario received 61 inquiries, incidents and complaints regarding modelling and talent agencies between January 2016 and the end of November of this year, but no specifications as to the nature of the complaints.

Drew Catherine isn't sure how to tackle the larger issues with the industry, but her Facebook group keeps growing and continues to alert Toronto-based models to questionable behaviour, one story at a time.

Modelling is "a dream job, but it is very frustrating, because you do feel trapped sometimes," Catherine said.

"That's what I want to change."

Do you work in the entertainment industry and have a story to share? Send your tips to saman.malik@cbc.ca at The Fifth Estate or call (416) 205-6017

About the Author

Salimah Shivji

Journalist

Salimah Shivji is a journalist with the national arts and entertainment unit.