The nude pictures that won't go away
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The nude pictures that won't go away
The photographer Jonathan Leder, right, and his wife, Danielle, editor of Jacques magazine, in New York, Aug. 31, 2010. Emily Ratajkowski accused Leder of assault and using photos against her wishes — other women say they have similar experiences. Robert Wright/The New York Times.

by Jessica Testa

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In September, model and actress Emily Ratajkowski published an essay describing, among other injurious experiences, being sexually assaulted by a photographer named Jonathan Leder when she was 20.

For years afterward, Ratajkowski wrote on The Cut, nude and seminude Polaroids from that shoot have been shown in galleries and republished without her permission.

In response, Leder called Ratajkowski’s accusations “false and salacious,” and her essay “tawdry and baseless.” Years ago, when Ratajkowski first began publicly denouncing Leder for publishing books of her nude shots, the photographer provided The New York Times with a copy of her model release — a contract specifying or limiting the use of one’s image — signed by Ratajkowski’s agent. The agreement allowed the photos to be used in “a future book of Polaroids.”

But according to Ratajkowski, her agent denied signing anything; Ratajkowski also said her lawyer suggested the signature was forged.

At home in Brooklyn, New York, Kathleen Sorbara read the essay with uneasy recognition. Leder had photographed her twice in 2013; he did not assault her, but he did continue releasing images of her, also against her wishes, she said.

Sorbara, now 25 and a vintage-clothing dealer, wondered if the 7-year-old images were still circulating. She searched Instagram with Leder’s name as a hashtag. She didn’t have to look long: In August, a Japanese company began selling T-shirts printed with his provocative photos, including Sorbara, at age 18, wearing lingerie. It felt like a violation, she said.

She had not signed a release, which isn’t standard for every type of shoot. Often agents handle the paperwork, meaning models aren’t always aware of the contracts. Even so, according to two industry colleagues of Leder’s, most photographers don’t typically disregard a model or her agency’s wishes in this context, either out of mutual respect or just a desire to maintain business relationships.

“It’s immoral,” Sorbara said. “There’s a certain level of trust when you’re collaborating with someone on an artistic project, especially when it involves your own naked body.”

Since the publication of Ratajkowski’s essay — in which she described Leder penetrating her with his fingers after the photo shoot, while she was drunk on wine he’d provided — more women have emerged with stories about Leder, ranging from discomfort with his continued use of certain images to allegations of abuse.

The Times tried to contact Leder, 47, for comment for this article, through phone calls, emails and text. He did not respond.

He is not the first photographer accused of exploiting young bodies while gatekeepers shrugged or turned the other way; Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier have also been accused of misconduct. (None of these men have been charged with a crime, and all have issued denials. Only one — Weber — faces lawsuits.)

“These are the kinds of stories that we hear every day,” said Sara Ziff, founder of Model Alliance, a labor rights nonprofit that runs a support line and workshops.

‘I Felt Crazy’
Leder made his name as a photographer with Jacques, a magazine he and Danielle Hettara, then his wife and a former model, began publishing in 2009. She was the editor-in-chief, and he was the creative director.

Their magazine, inspired by vintage issues of Playboy and featuring what Leder once described as “wholesome” nudity, was well received. He was soon asked to shoot videos for brands like Adidas and Louis Vuitton.

In October 2011, after two years of marriage and two children together, Hettara said she confronted her husband about his involvement with Nola Palmer, the lead actress of a feature film he was directing.

During that argument, according to a police report Hettara filed in Woodstock, New York, Leder choked her while she held their infant daughter. At that moment, she said in an interview, “I was so shaken up that I couldn’t remember the number to call 911.” She went to the police five days later, after speaking to friends and family and intermittently trying to reconcile with Leder. She was granted an order of protection.

Leder was arrested in January 2012 and charged with criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation and endangering the welfare of a child, but was acquitted at trial. (The case record is sealed, but Leder’s acquittal was discussed in a divorce-related hearing in September 2017; at the hearing, Leder denied the incident and ever being violent with any woman, according to the court transcript.)

Over the years Hettara told her story to business associates, she said, hoping they might stop working with him. “A lot of people didn’t care, because as you can see, the modeling agencies just sent him models,” she said. “I immediately got painted as this jealous housewife.”

In a 2014 issue of Jacques — themed around betrayal, with Leder off the masthead — Hettara identified herself as “a domestic abuse survivor” who “had a nervous breakdown because of it.” She and Palmer, who had broken from Leder, did a photo shoot together and exchanged emotional public letters.

“For a year I felt crazy,” Hettara wrote in her letter. “It’s part of his abuse — he makes you feel and look crazy.”

The week after Ratajkowski’s essay was published, Palmer, 29, wrote on Instagram that Leder was “my abuser,” too.

He would, she said, monitor her weight and control her hairstyle and clothing. He would tell her not to work with anyone else. He taught her that “my body can only be respected or appreciated if it’s naked,” she said. She has since changed her name, she said, to make a break with the person he controlled.

While shooting Leder’s film in Florida — where she also temporarily lived with him, Hettara and their two children — she called her parents and agent to tell them she was scared and wanted to go home, she said.

Palmer’s agent emailed Leder in May 2011. In the note, reviewed by The Times, the agent told Leder that she’d spoken to Palmer and was concerned. She asked him to call Palmer’s father, as well as make other living arrangements for her: “While you feel sometimes like a big brother, also big brothers can be a pain to deal with and little sisters as well,” she wrote. She told Leder that once the film got rolling, the footage of Palmer, then 19, “will be AMAZING.”

The movie, in which Palmer played a stripper, was not finished. Because of the unreleased footage in Leder’s possession, she said, she has worried about speaking out against him. She also drank while filming with him.

Shortly after Hettara and Leder separated, Hettara said she discovered in a storage locker several contact sheets from a magazine shoot he was hired to do in 2011. The subject was a 15-year-old girl, who, in some images, has her top unbuttoned to reveal a sheer bra; in another she was posed kneeling, with her legs slightly spread, on a mattress.

Models younger than 15 have long been used in fashion photography, but the photos Hettara found went further than her and Leder’s typical work with minors, she said, and she found them deeply troubling, as she has described in court documents.

Young girls still routinely find themselves asked to undress during shoots, and do not always feel empowered to say no, Ziff said

Often, models don’t feel comfortable complaining to their agent, she said, because “they don’t want to seem difficult to work with and jeopardize future bookings.”

'An Abusive Monster'
Sorbara was photographed twice by Leder in Woodstock in November 2013: first for a blog and again for a publication by Leder that he would release the next year, “A Study in Fetishism: Manifesto, Vol. 1,” featuring Ratajkowski.

Sorbara said she didn’t feel uncomfortable until the second shoot. When she arrived, she said, she was surprised by the concept: “1950s-1960s lesbian porn pinup.” At one point Leder asked her to kiss another model, who was then his girlfriend, and she said no. After seeing the photos, Sorbara asked, through her agent, that her name be removed from the project. Leder agreed, according to emails provided to The Times.

Not only did “Vol. 1” include her name — and, on the cover, her photo — but over the next two years, she saw images from that shoot in a Los Angeles gallery show and in another art publication.

“These were photos that were used for different projects that I had never given him permission to use,” Sorbara said.

She wanted her agency, Wilhelmina Models, to take legal action. “I trusted this photographer with these photos because the agency set me up with him,” she wrote in an email to the agency. “But now these photos are being reproduced and sold over and over again.”

An agent told her in 2015 he would look into it. But he added that he didn’t like her tone; he had been “against you shooting in that manor for a while,” he wrote, misspelling "manner," and this “should be a learning experience in your career to make sure not to put yourself in uncomfortable types of shoots.”

In a statement, Wilhelmina said that in Sorbara’s case, a lawyer advised the agency that “it was not likely that there had been a breach of contract that would enable Ms. Sorbara, or Wilhelmina, to pursue a claim.”

The following year, in 2016, she arrived at a casting call to discover that the job was another shoot with Leder in Woodstock. He wasn’t at the casting, but she was distraught that her agency had put her in the position to potentially encounter him again.

She received an apology and was promised the agency had recorded that “you or no other girl should shoot with this photographer.”

But Sorbara said she thinks “young women continue to get thrown into the fire pit” until “agencies take a stand,” or until there’s more industry oversight of photographers.

Sorbara also believes there are ethical ways to stage and share artistic nudes; the problem is not the content.

One photographer, Stacey Mark, said recently that before selling a print of a topless model to an interested buyer, she called the model to make sure it was OK. “She was like: 'I’ve never been asked that before,’ ” Mark said.

Mark shot for Jacques magazine, as well as more mainstream magazines. She has photographed both Sorbara and Palmer, who’ve both confided in her their experiences with Leder. She also dated Leder in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It was an unhealthy relationship, she said, describing him as manipulative and mean. On Instagram, after Ratajkowski’s essay was published, she called him “an abusive monster.”

She said she didn’t understand why agents continued sending models alone to his remote Woodstock home.

“That never made sense to me,” Mark said. “Who’s Jonathan? What are you going to get out of it? This isn’t Richard Avedon. Where are you going? You’re going into some pit to get some Polaroids naked? Because everybody knows that’s the work that he does.”

The Silver Lining
Throughout years of intense divorce and custody battles, with wide-ranging accusations and arrests of both parties — Hettara for failing to pay child support — she has also fought for ownership of her ideas and image.

She managed to take over Jacques, after years of what she said was watching Leder claim credit for her ideas and work. (This tension was evident during a 2010 interview with The Times, when Leder remembered calling the 2008 financial crisis “the perfect time to start something.” “You said that?” Hettara interjected. “I said that.”)

She wanted to get belongings back from Leder; during Ratajkowski’s shoot, Hettara said the model was dressed in her lingerie and holding her childhood teddy bear. (The bear has since been returned, she said.)

She wanted to walk down a street without seeing a topless photo of herself on a passer-by’s T-shirt (sold by ASOS in 2013). In 2014, she sent a cease-and-desist letter to Leder after discovering that he had included intimate footage of her in a video promoting a zine in which she did not appear.

Some of Hettara's battles have been unsuccessful. Jacques folded after its ninth edition in 2015. Leder has sole legal custody of their two children, though she sees them on alternate weekends.

In court documents, Hettara and Leder have accused each other of abandonment and neglect. He has called her “bizarre” and reported her to the Woodstock police for threatening his life (she has not been charged).

Recently, representing herself, Hettara tried to use Ratajkowski’s allegations to have her custody restored. Ratajkowski’s essay mentions the children multiple times, including when Ratajkowski wonders, post-assault, if she’s sleeping in his daughter’s bed. The order was denied.

Hettara, now 34, has never met or spoken to Ratajkowski, 29. But Palmer and Ratajkowski used to be friends, although they hadn’t shared their stories about Leder with each other until recently.

“The silver lining is that we finally get to find healing through it,” Palmer said.

Ratajkowski declined to be interviewed for this article but provided a statement through her publicist: “Writing ‘Buying Myself Back’ wasn’t easy to do and publishing it was even scarier. But hearing from other women (inside the industry and out) about how much it resonated with them and spoke to their own experiences made me feel hopeful and simply less alone — a feeling that shouldn’t be underestimated.

“It’s devastating to realize how many young women have been taken advantage of and felt powerless to do anything about it,” the statement said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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