The most well known shots from photographer Terry Richardson are undoubtedly his portraits of huge names such as Barack Obama, Miley Cyrus, James Franco, Jared Leto and Rihanna. However, when you take a minute to examine his extensive back catalogue and see the patterns in how he portrays the different genders, the feel to his photographs diverts somewhat from an artistic style of shooting to a more pornographic feel.

Richardson’s photographs (whether of celebrities or for an advertising campaign) generally show men clothed, powerful, and on the occasion they have a top off, posed in such a way to seem as manly as possible, while the women all seem to be persuaded towards taking off their clothes straight away and to pose in the most sexually open manner possible, with only the occasional serious snap. While there is certainly a time and a place for being provocative in mainstream media, Richardson’s difference in portrayal of the genders is incredibly reminiscent of porn videos, and the way the sexes are depicted in them. However, the pornographic vibe doesn’t stop at stereotypical gender portrayal – when you begin digging a bit deeper into the controversy surrounding Richardson and his photography practice, what you find makes for some uncomfortable reading.

A significant number of young models have come forward (both anonymously and more out in the open) to recount their experiences about “Uncle Terry” and his manner of behaving with models. The accounts tell stories of requested handjobs, being licked – everywhere – whilst naked, getting pressured into intimate shots the subjects were uncomfortable with, and having to hold the camera to photograph Richardson himself while he performed sexual acts.

Richardson has never really responded to any direct allegations against him, only ever releasing vague statements, but the amount of people who have told their stories about Richardson seem to speak their own tale. The accounts are widely varied and are spaced over a number of years, and they certainly do not seem fake or exaggerated. A quick Internet search for “Terry Richardson pornography” shows the photographer engaged in many explicit scenarios with young-looking models, some even featuring the photographer in full-blown sexual intercourse – all of this seems to call into question where the line between consensual erotic photography and taking advantage of fame and young models is, and has Richardson crossed it?

Three creepy stories

Two months ago on Reddit a model confessed: “He stepped back at some point and had me start removing my clothes (I knew I would be getting nude, so this was not weird to me). I was being directed to do things like hold the top of his pants while he took more POV style pictures, then eventually unbutton his pants and then his penis was out. Meanwhile it felt like it was all just happening and there was no time to step back and be like “woah this is out of hand”. I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as a particularly aggressive person (and definitely wasn’t at 19) and the only way I can describe how I felt was nervous and paralyzed (….) He had me posing on the couch and then I had my back to him and just literally felt him start licking my ass, like every part of it, and the assistant was taking pictures the whole time. (…) He even directed me to squeeze his balls as hard as I could so that they pushed back up into his body. I did not even know that was possible (at least I learned something about the male anatomy that night?). I was completely a sex puppet at this point. It ended with him jacking off on to my face and he told me to keep my eyes open really wide and his assistant stood over me and it got in my eye and they both began taking pics of it for a what felt like ten minutes but was probably only 30 seconds…”

Former model Jamie Peck revealed in 2010 Uncle Terry’s fetish for making tampon tea:“I told him I had my period so I wanted to keep my underwear on, and he asked me to take my tampon out for him to play with. ‘I love tampons!’ he said, in that psychotically upbeat way that temporarily convinces so many girls that what’s fun for Uncle Terry is fun for them. The only explanation I can come up with is that he was so darn friendly and happy about it all, and his assistants were so stoked on it as well, that I didn’t want to be the killjoy in the room. My new fake friends would’ve been bummed if I’d said no. I must have said something about finals, because he told me ‘if you make me come, you get an A,’ so I did! Pretty fast, I might add. All over my left hand. His assistant handed me a towel.”

Another model said: “I was a model in the late 90s in London, during lunch I approached him and asked him if he had any moral quandaries about exploiting the sad dreams of models who hadn’t yet made it and probably never would. I asked him if he realized that they were enacting what they believed were his expectations and fantasies in order to gain his favor and hence gain a cover or a future booking. ‘I don’t really think about that stuff,’ he told me, ‘I guess you’re smarter than me.'”

Art or porn?

To really establish whether Richardson’s images are more pornographic than art, it all comes down to what the motivation behind the work is. For example, take a porn video found on the Internet – is this art or pornography? It should be the latter for sure – the creators of the video have no interest in the thoughts and feelings of the viewing audience – their motivation is more inclined towards financial and business benefits. However, if someone then takes the video in question and displays it somewhere publicly to see the responses of passers-by, this can then surely be called art? The creative intention and reaction loop has been established, and it certainly fits into my own personal rule, in which something becomes art when both the artist and viewer feel something about the piece in question.

To define when something becomes art is a very problematic area indeed, as every individual has a different opinion about what the limitations should be. Richardson’s body of work certainly seems to be art upon a first glance, with his signature style running throughout his work and a fan list boasting some enviable names. But flip the coin over and the list of people who have publicly condemned him is equally as long and carries as much weight, and the stories certainly give weight to the abuse of position and sexual exploitation accusations.

On the surface, the work of Terry Richardson looks harmless enough – in a world where sex (as long as it’s heterosexual and mainly focused on the woman as an object) sells, his practice could just be a product of a reasonably sexist era where being naked gets you noticed and being controversial is the new cool. However, underneath the surface glamour, the manner in which Richardson practices his photography seems fairly lecherous and sexist, and his motivation behind the images seems to be more about his own ego and sexual adventures than any kind of creativity, no matter what his intentions were when he first started out as a photographer.

Amy McLelland