I met with a really awesome female model today, and we got to talking about my philosophy when it comes to ensuring my clients' safety. I thought it would be behoove me to post my thoughts on this.
I try to think of photography from a female model's perspective. I'm an adult male, heterosexual, my studio is in-home, and I'm relatively new (haven't worked with professional models, no references, etc). These things alone would be big red flags! Far too often (for the record, one occurrence is too often), men buy a digital camera, pretend to be a photographer, and try to use this persona to prey on women. For this reason, I have a strict policy about how I work with models (amateur or professional) that I think everyone should consider adopting.
1) Get references before doing anything else. They should have a list of contacts ready for you to download (admittedly, I don't yet have this list, but that's why #2 and #3 are so important). If you know someone who has worked with them before, ask them about the photographer. Ask questions about their behavior and the overall vibe the photographer gave them.
2) Look at their portfolio before you meet with them. It should be available online in places like 500px.com, Instagram, Flickr, etc. It's much easier now for stolen protected work to be discovered online through services like TinEye. The pictures should be professional looking. Some photographers are going to be brand new and have limited skills and access to good lighting. But, poor quality pictures can be a sign that they are using the persona of a photographer to lure their victims. It's just something to keep in mind when deciding overall if this person is trustworthy enough to engage. Besides: who wants to work with a photographer who clearly isn't ready?
3) Meet in a public place before scheduling a shoot. Even if you have personal recommendations from someone you know, that doesn't mean the situation will be right for you. It should be a populated place with decent cell phone service, WiFi available, and if at all possible, in broad daylight. Starbucks is a perfect place to meet up. It's well lit, usually busy, and there's lots of tall windows all around. Try to get there early so that you can increase your chances of finding the best strategic place to sit. Wherever you sit, have a clear shot to an exit. If the photographer got there first and they sat in such a way that they would be sitting between you and your exits, ask to swap seats or to sit at a different table, giving you the ability to reach your exit without obstruction. If they hesitate or try to pressure you to just sit, you are under no obligation to talk with this person. Feel free to walk away with your keys in your hand without even saying a thing.
4) Bring a friend! Whether it be an outdoor shoot, commercial studio shoot or a home studio shoot, bring someone you trust with you. This person should be someone who makes you feel safe, you know will have your back, and as a bonus, can keep you relaxed if you're normally nervous in front of a camera. Insist on this with your photographer. Let them know this is a deal-breaker. Any hesitation or push back should be a non-starter with you. If they have assistants or make-up artists you don't know, try to outnumber them with your entourage. This might not be necessary if the person you are bringing has experience with personal security and/or self defense. This isn't about the photographer's comfort. It's about your safety.
5) Bring your own water. I don't even want to go into all the things a person can put in a drink they offer you and the effects they have. Bring your own drinking water and don't accept anything they offer. Even tap water from their bathroom is safer.
6) Know your exits. Have the photographer show you where the bathroom is in relation to the studio. It can be a good place to lock yourself in and call the police (excuse yourself to use it when you arrive and check that it locks). Watching for emergency exits or other avenues of escape if things get a little hairy. If it's in a home studio, insist that the front door be left unlocked (including the door chain). If equipment is blocking or hindering your exit path, don't hesitate to ask it be moved. If for some reason having that equipment there is the only way to make the shoot work, don't be shy about breaking the dude's sh*t to clear a path if you need to escape.
7) Let people know where you are. Just like you never hike in the mountains without letting people know where and for how long you'll be on this journey, don't go to a shoot without telling people where you'll be. It's also a good idea to turn on your tracking ability on your cell phone. Th ere are “friend finder” apps for iPhone that work pretty well.
8) Share your experience. If you know any other models or are part of a social media group of make-up artists, hair stylists and other models, tell them how it went. Let them know how the photographer behaved, if there was any creeper vibe you got from them or if there were things that concerned you. This goes a long way to ensure the safety of others while also giving truly professional photographers a deserved positive reference.
9) Trust. Your. Instincts. I cannot emphasize this enough. When something isn't quite right, you will feel it. We tend to suppress this feeling in order to be polite and that's a dangerous practice. Ignoring your gut feeling can leave you vulnerable. If you don't feel right about walking into someone's house, a shooting location, etc., you don't have to give a reason. Just turn around and leave with your car keys in hand. It'll be faster to get your car started and you can use them as a weapon. Just because another model you know was fine and didn't feel in danger the last time they shot with this photographer doesn't mean your instincts are wrong.
10) Learn self defense. This is a good idea generally, but photography seems to have a high creeper to professional ratio. You might not find this step necessary. You may feel it's overboard, and that's OK. But, maybe you're more nervous than your fellow models, and that's OK, too. Taking a self defense course does not mean you have to get a black belt at Dojo X, who might only teach "movie martial arts" (techniques that have no chance of helping you in the real world). There are self defense classes that are geared toward teaching people (mostly women) to defend themselves without having to be a martial arts expert. It should focus primarily on grappling (which, in my opinion, is how most fights end up anyway), using common items like car keys as weapons, how to get your assaulter off of you without having to deliver a powerful blow, etc. Even a one-time class can make a huge difference. If you're new to modeling and are fairly nervous about dealing with male photographers, self defense can give you an extra boost of confidence outside of just getting experience in front of the camera.
I'm sure there are male photographers who don't agree with this post and think it's unfair to them. That's just too damned bad. This is the world we unfortunately live in and for male photographers like myself, this is the cost of doing business. I want to do the best work I can, but my craft is a distant second to model safety.
Please feel free to share this post if you think it was helpful and that there are models who could benefit from it. Thank you for reading!