Models pose for David Paul Larson. Larson is featured in the top left and bottom right images. Photos: Instagram.com/david_paul_larson, © David Paul Larson
The pathological need for predatory male photographers to acquire troves of nude photographs of young models in the name of “art” is disturbing to say the least. Many of the ones preyed upon are often new to the industry and lack enough experience to navigate uncomfortable situations or don’t have the proper management to guard their best interests and safety.
This deliberate exertion of power and entitlement is a tale as old as time, but fashion’s reckoning with #MeToo is still new. In the last couple years, we’ve seen survivors come forward about their experiences with Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, Timur Emek, and Marcus Hyde, but most recently, Emily Ratajkowski’s op-ed for New York Magazine also highlighted the difficulty for models to retain any ownership their own image. It’s a problem that’s especially hard to reconcile when the photos are compromising in nature and plied through psychological, verbal, or physical coercion.
Coupled with the fact that photographers often have rights to these photographs in perpetuity, it’s an outlook that could deter any model from working in this industry. Such was the case with Paulina Keamy, who agreed to shoot with NYC-based photographer David Paul Larson after he reached out to her on instagram in 2016. “I wanted to work with him because I saw he was shooting girls from agencies I wanted to be signed with,” Keamy said. “I thought his interest in shooting me was confirmation that I was good enough to be signed to these agencies too.” Larson by that time, had already shot big names like Adriana Lima and Lucky Blue Smith, which added a sense of legitimacy for Keamy.
Fully aware it would be a nude photoshoot with a release signed, that didn’t stop things from getting uncomfortable. “While shooting, he would say things like, ‘what is sexy to you? Now, show me’. I didn't know what this meant,” the model said. “I continued to pose as I normally would and he would stop and ask me again, ‘what is sexy to you?’. I could tell he wanted me to be doing more of *something*, but I wasn't sure what it was.”
Larson eventually began inserting himself into the photos with Keamy while she was nude, some including his feet in the foreground. “I was asked to stand in front of the mirror with him next to me and was told to ‘direct’ him into different poses as I snapped mirror pictures of the both of us.” It was the only experience she ever had with a photographer including himself in the shoot. "Sensing my confusion he showed me examples of previous models and how they directed him - putting their hand on his shoulder, using his arms to obstruct parts of their body in the mirror, arching their backs against him," Keamy said. “It felt like his way of portraying ownership. Me - vulnerable and so insignificant to the point that I am level with his feet. It was like some weird power play.”
Afterglow, one of David Paul Larson's books featuring nudes of the models. Photo: © David Paul Larson
After the shoot, Keamy called her then-boyfriend in tears, feeling ashamed to have been agreeable, despite feeling otherwise. “I hated that I didn't tell him he was making me uncomfortable… I consistently told myself this is ‘art’ and ‘just how it is’ and that it would all pay off later.”
In reality, there's no reason any model should feel unsafe in the pursuit of creating art, though some photographers will make sure to create optimal conditions for predation. "I enjoy the authenticity that comes from working solely with the nude model in my studio. No hair stylist, makeup artist, art directors or clients on set," Larson wrote on his website.
Last week, Keamy received a DM from Larson, who told her she would be included in a new book of his. Assuming it was a nude they shot together, she expressed her grievances about not being asked for consent to publish the intimate photos. "On a human level, I don't know why you would want to use old photos of girls you've shot when they deeply to not what [sic] you to," to which Larson retorted that he had a signed model release which granted him ownership in perpetuity. Hysterical, she texted a friend who suggested to check Shit Model Management’s blacklist of fashion industry “professionals” who have been reported to cross boundaries with models. There was Larson’s name along with an asterisk indicating 3+ reported cases of misconduct.
A screenshot of Keamy's conversation with Larson.
A screenshot of Shit Model Management's blacklist featuring David Paul Larson's name.
Keamy then restated her position to the photographer. “To be clear - you do not have my understanding nor do I give you permission to use my photos and formally request here and now that you do not use them for your book or otherwise. This is MY NAKED BODY - how is this even up for debate?,” her DM read.
A screenshot of Keamy's conversation with Larson.
Sara Ziff, who founded the Model Alliance, has been advocating to reform the modeling industry since 2012. She believes a systemic solution for preventing issues like this would be the RESPECT Program. "Implementing the program would lead to negotiation of those IP rights instead of uninformed, one-sided handing of those rights by agencies and photographers that agencies work with. We could really negotiate anything we want under RESPECT. But models have to rise up together to demand it," Ziff said.
But is there any legal recourse after a release is signed? Professor Susan Scafidi, the founder and director of Fordham University's Fashion Law Institute, points to a bleak outlook. "Unless the model was underage or there's another flaw or loophole in the release, there's very little that the law can do. Some state laws on rights of publicity limit what can be done with the model's image, for example use in an ad, but the photos can often be displayed, reused, and sold without the model's permission or even additional compensation," says Scafidi, who also helped found the Model Alliance and served on their board for several years. "Ideally models would advised never to sign away all rights in perpetuity, but this is an area ripe for reform."
“I hope we are able to progress to a point where a contractual agreement between model and photographer exists to enforce a routine re-signing of model release forms to ensure the model has protection as their life evolves,” Keamy said when asked what she hoped would change within the future of the industry. “I think this would be in the best interest of developing positive and trusting relationships between creatives.”
Keamy wasn’t given any further details about what the book might be before Larson blocked her after leaving her on “seen.” If his recent posts on instagram are any indication, there will be plenty of other nude models with his feet in the foreground and the ever-creepy, oppressive, and looming presence of the male gaze.
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