Times have changed. When I was an undergrad during the pre-internet days, I had few means to earn extra pocket money. I taught tuition and so did most of my peers who weren’t from such well-to-do families. Today’s undergrads, poly students and even ITE students are not only far more enterprising, they also have many more opportunities to show off their talent. Some recommend gadgets for a commission on their blogs, some run their own blogshops stocked with garments bought in Bangkok, Hongkong or Taiwan, some go into the much simpler profession of modelling.
The advent of digital photography revolutionised photography in more ways than one. A sophisticated-looking DSLR can go for less than $1000 these days and the tedious, expensive process of developing photos from film has been done away with. You can virtually shoot an unlimited number of pictures, delete those you don’t like, transfer the rest to DVDs and just keep shooting. I used to carry more than 10 rolls of film with me on my overseas trips. Nowadays, all the recording media I need can fit into my wallet and not cause any significant bulge.
With the convenience of digital media and with almost everyone going online, photoshoots are getting easier and easier to organise through the internet and with so many eager portrait photographers ready to add pretty, sexy pictures to his/her (mostly his) collection, the demand for freelance models has risen sharply. And so has the supply. Websites or online directories where models can list their profiles are seeing massive traffic almost like some job-seeking site.
With an internet-savvy population, Singapore sees a meteoric rise in the number of “freelance models”. Without any training or experience, some of these girls set up profiles in well known online model directories. Those who want a “headstart” might get in touch with well known photographers though their friends. They would then pester these photographers to do some sophisticated themed shoot to enhance or build up their portfolios. Many of these girls are tertiary or even secondary school students wishing to earn a bit of pocket money. But there are also a few amongst them who have bigger dreams. They don’t just want to earn some pocket money. They want to be featured in magazines (even if they are not paid for the shoot) with the hope that the exposure and publicity will propel them to stardom.
It is now commonplace to see a group of photographers converging on a frail, young lady, smiling, posing and trying her best to respond to “look here” in places like Fort Canning, Sentosa, Botanic Gardens, Emerald Hill or some disused railway track. Such organised shoots may be quite a spectacle, but they are affordable to most amateurs. Over the years, many organisers have become quite well-known and popular.
Popularity imparts power to these organisers, especially those who have acquired extensive wardrobes, a studio and even registered a company to train, groom and promote aspiring models. These folks can shoot professional-looking portfolios for aspiring models. They become the Jack Neos of their industry, able to make convincing promises of turning clueless newbies into the next Fann Wong. Many starry-eyed teenagers will see them as a ticket to their dreams of stardom. The rise of these potential star-groomers also results in competition. Even small professional fraternities are not immune to backstabbing and other malicious, vindictive attacks. What more can be said about photoshoot organisers?
I expected disputes, between models and photographers, photographers and organisers, models and organisers to arise every now and then. I was not even too surprised by some of the crimes like blackmail committed by some photographer wannabe, but nothing prepared me for the current dispute between Photographer M and Photographer R which escalated into a “grand exposure” of some of the dirty secrets within the industry.
Photographer R who is on the offensive, dedicated a big part of his Facebook page to vilifying the Photographer M. R took great pains to collect “testimonies” from victimised models in the form of chat screen captures. Many of the names of the accusing parties have been blocked out, making them effectively anonymous. Some of the jucier details include models accusing the photographer of making them spend the night in his studio with him. Many accused him of touching them and adjusting their clothing during the shoots, asking them to do nude shoots or asking them to change in the open. But what I find most deplorable, are the use of screensaves from private chats between 2 people to malign.
Perhaps the most shocking secret is revealed by a model who claimed that M complained about the appearance of pubic hair from a model’s bikini and he went on to shave it. Quite disingenuously, M claimed that he only pulled down the bikini by 5mm and only the razor touched the girl’s body. He also posted explanations on some of the things he did. Some (like impersonation, mistaken identity and girls being fickle) are quite plausible. Some are more like lame excuses for touching and taking advantage of the girls – something which many men who are swollen with pride and the feeling of power would do.
A model who supports M claimed that it’s common in the industry. Of course, it is not common in the industry, but it can certainly happen between a big time photographer and an ambitious, aspiring model. What happens in this case is that M turns out to be not so big time and the models regret their sacrifices, hence claiming that they have been victimised.
Actually, this whole saga only attracted widespread attention when R accused M of breaking the law by shooting nude pictures outdoors – apparently on St John’s Island. The model involved made a police report saying that her “private” photos were used without her permission. M even accused the R of defamation.
When challenged for more objectivity, R insists that he is doing the industry a favour by destroying a bad apple. While I can’t agree with some of the unhealthy practices by M, it seems more than a little likely that the “victims” were not entirely blameless. Of course, I can’t agree entirely with the R either. Even though he seems to have a lot of supporters, it deplores me to see that he has used screen captures from second and third party private chats to illustrate his point. It makes me wonder what lengths R will go to to discredit M or for that matter, anybody who happens to offend him. A brief exchange with R on Facebook reinforced some of my reservations about him. It’s an ugly “business”.
I feel that there should be more objectivity in his supposedly “noble” effort to bring awareness to the community, but his incessant, one-sided attacks focussed only on one individual, makes us wonder if he has any hidden agenda. M has insinuated that R is jealous of him and longs to poach his models/business. At this moment of writing, R‘s Facebook page has 862 likes while M‘s page has 1586 friends. An article in Wanbao in which he boasted that some of M‘s models have gone over to his side and their “market values” have increased as a result seems to tell us a little more than what R may have intended.
So are R‘s intentions purely to warn unsuspecting young models against a predator? Or does he have other plans in mind?
With a growing community of portrait photographers, freelance models and photoshoot organisers, friction is bound to occur. In retrospect, I should have seen that it’s only a matter of time that something like this would erupt. When it does, there are many ways to deal with it and I think going to the press and the police will not do any good to an industry that thrives on the freedom to dream and create.