Felicia Szeto did her first private photo modelling shoot six years ago aged 18. That one went well, but sadly the Hong Kong freelance model can’t say that for all the shoots she’s done since.
“When I started out, some photographers took off my bra and touched my breasts, others took off my underwear during shoots,” she says. “Today I’m more aware of my rights, but harassment still occurs.”
Eilia (she does not want to disclose her full name) is 25. She also models for private shoots and says sexual harassment and abuse is rife.
“I’ve had photographers ask me questions like ‘do I have sex with my boyfriend’ or ‘do I want to be their girlfriend’. I’ve had my bottom slapped.” Requests for sex – vaginal and oral – are common, she says.
“When you’re in a studio with a photographer who starts harassing you, you’re vulnerable,” Eilia says. “I’ve been more than scared in these situations … I put on a brave front but I’m shaking inside.”
In Hong Kong, there are hundreds of Instagram accounts where thousands of freelance private shooting models post their profiles. Social media is a vital tool for sharing work and securing it.
Photographers – both amateurs and professionals – recruit models from these platforms for private shooting assignments. Assignment details are negotiated between model and artist, but a lack of transparency and accountability mean the models are open to abuse.
Photographer and life model Liu Ngan Ling, who in 2017 founded the Hong Kong Life Model Club, was shocked when she heard of models’ being sexually harassed and assaulted on private photo shoots.
“Then I got angry,” she says.
Liu was already planning “Incarnation”, a multimedia exhibition curated by the Hong Kong Life Model Club that will be held in Kwai Chung, in the New Territories, from Oct 22 to Nov 28.
The exhibition, part of this year’s Hong Kong International Photo Festival Satellite Exhibitions, showcases 84 nudes by Hong Kong photographer Simon C, taken in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Models of different age, race and shape are featured as well as models with disabilities and across the sexual identity spectrum.
“It’s a celebration of the human body,” says Liu, who is also a co-founder of Body Fest, Hong Kong’s only nudity-themed festival.
After hearing about the models’ experiences, she felt compelled to incorporate workshops and lectures to run parallel with the exhibition on issues relating to body photography – including the rising culture of private photography.
Speakers include a scholar, artists, a sexuality educator and a gender equity advocate. They will discuss topics ranging from the history of body photography to issues surrounding private photography.
Also on the agenda are subjects such as selfies, selling self-images, slut-shaming, and debunking myths and misconceptions about body autonomy.
Szeto, a guest speaker on Nov 6, will provide insights into the world of private shooting and issues around OSH (occupational safety and health), and give advice on how to prevent sexual violence during private shoots.
“Sharing my story is liberating,” she says. “It raises awareness and will hopefully protect other models.”
In Hong Kong, the non-profit Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women (ACSVAW) says it has handled cases of women sexually harassed on private photo shoots and life modelling assignments. “We’ve also received reports of hidden cameras installed in the photo shoot studios,” a spokesperson for the association says.
The association has also handled cases of image-based sexual abuse involving blackmail and extortion.
Eilia has been blackmailed. “It’s a big problem. Photographers take photos without a model’s consent and then blackmail them. It’s sexual favours they want more than money.
“I’ve had photographers tell me that if I didn’t have sex with them they would show the images to my family,” she says, adding that her husband and family know about her modelling work.
Many women give in to blackmailers, she adds, and don’t speak out because they hide their modelling work from their partner or family members and fear they will find out. “There’s a lot of shame surrounding this work – a lot of victim blaming.”
In September, Hong Kong passed a bill that made image-based sexual abuse – including threatening to publish intimate images or videos without consent – a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in jail. The bill marks a major step in the fight against sexual abuse, but more challenging, Liu says, is changing society’s attitude.
“People look down on this type of private modelling work – it’s stigmatised and the women shamed. People see them as prostitutes and call them electronic chickens,” Liu says, explaining that the slang name for a female prostitute in Cantonese is “chicken”.
“People must see this line of work like any other type of work. They must understand that this is sexual harassment in the workplace and models need support and protection just like in other jobs.”
Liu says women also stay silent for fear they won’t get hired again. “They lose work while the photographers who harassed them continue to operate freely without repercussions. What do they gain if they speak out?”
Shame also prevents women from reporting abuse to police. Many fear their cases won’t be taken seriously because of the stigma surrounding the work.
In August, a Hong Kong fashion designer was arrested for indecent assault after luring a teen to a “free photo shoot”. Police say the 32-year-old met his victim, 18, online before convincing her to come to a flat to have pictures taken. The police are looking into whether other girls were lured into the same situation.
In April, a photographer in Malaysia was accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour – including molesting, sending obscene images and blackmailing – towards dozens of models who had shared stories of sexual abuse through the Blacklisted Photographers Instagram account dedicated to exposing predatory photographers. The photographer denies the allegations.
“Of course there are good and professional photographers on these platforms but we’re talking about the predatory ones, those photographers who come across as polite during job negotiations on direct messaging – they arrange a shoot, and pay for a nice location,” Eilia says.
“The harassment starts when it’s face to face so there’s no digital record. The boundaries are pushed and you feel trapped.”
Szeto adds that while models are empowering themselves by naming and shaming predatory photographers, many simply return to the platforms under different profiles.
On the 27th floor of an industrial building in Kwai Chung, where the “Incarnation” exhibition is being held, Eilia stands in front of a huge black and white image of her along with Szeto and two other models.
“People see beauty in the naked form and appreciate it as art, but some don’t have the same appreciation for the models – they look down on us. It doesn’t make sense,” Eilia says.
“It’s taken a long time to get to this place and speak out – It’s not been easy. All we are asking for, male and female models, is respect.”
Szeto, who started out in front of the camera, has for the past four years also worked as a private shoot photographer. She wants more female photographers to follow in her footsteps.
“The imbalance of power between the model and photographer during private shooting leaves many confused and vulnerable,” she says.
If a model feels uncomfortable during a shoot, Szeto says there are ways to “disarm” a photographer. “Ask questions like what is your name and where do you live … humanise the situation.”
The Hong Kong Life Model Club regularly posts a list of “rules and rights” on model recruitment platforms to educate both model and artist – whether it’s a photographer, painter or sculptor.
Guidelines include that an artist cannot take a picture of a model without his/her permission; are not allowed to touch a model under any circumstance; and cannot ask to see a model’s nude body before employing the model. Models can refuse any pose an artist asks them to do, and can ask for a break at any time, the guidelines stipulate.
Both Szeto and Eilia say that the Me Too movement, the social justice and empowerment campaign that encourages women to break their silence on sexual harassment, motivated them to speak out.
The movement was fuelled by widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood heavyweight, who was accused of taking advantage of young women. He is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence .
Incarnation, 27/F, Che Wah Industrial Building, 1 Kin Hong Street, Tai Wo Hau, Kwai Chung. Oct 22-Nov 28.
Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women helpline: 2375 5322; SafeChat WhatsApp: 6730 1892
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.