In New Documentary Film, The Fashion Models Shoot Back

Sara Ziff — an outspoken Sasha Pivovarova double — started modeling at 14, and deferred college to model full-time. After 12 years in the industry, she’s co-directed a documentary about the working lives of models.

Ziff’s film, Picture Me, premiered at the Gen Art film festival in New York on Monday — and after watching this trailer, I am dying to see it. Ziff’s background — her parents are an NYU neurobiologist and a lawyer, and Ziff herself went to high school at Manhattan’s tony Dalton school — made her an unusual fit in a profession that, as she explains, makes you feel like “a living doll.” And, as she worked in the industry, she began to question its practices: from the probably harmful (in an interview with the Daily Beast, Ziff relates working with a model so young that she was playing with a coloring book) to the abstractly interesting (there’s no better demonstration of the power dynamic of the photographer/model relationship than the footage, in the trailer, of Ziff turning her video camera on a backstage lensman who is shooting her). This is a girl who’s clearly read her Sontag. (It must have been a struggle to find the time. A brief summary of her very successful career requires mention of everything from Chanel couture and Balenciaga shows, to Delias catalogs, and ads for DKNY and the Gap.)

In Picture Me, Ziff and her co-director, Ole Schell, get models like Diana Dondoe, Tanya Dziahileva, Olga Scherer, Lisa Cant, and Missy Rayder, as well as industry eminences grises like Gilles Bensimon, on tape discussing everything from models’ weight (how heartbreaking it is to hear Rayder talking about how she always felt her hips made her stand out from the other girls in the runway lineup) to the realities of becoming the family breadwinner at the ripe old age of 14. (When Schell asks Dziahileva, who is from Belarus, to describe her family’s situation prior to her modeling career, she shakes her head no, presumably from shame at her former poverty.) The full film promises to show models addressing topics like agency debt and our vulnerability to the predators who mar the industry. (Topics which are of course close to my heart.)

It helps to know that, for Ziff at least, this is a story with a happy ending. She earned enough money to buy a place of her own in the West Village, and now, at 26, she’s studying English and Fine Arts at Columbia. (You can read her contributions to the university paper, the Spectator.)

It’s great that a model thought to create the opportunity to talk back to an industry that sometimes leaves you feeling like a professional mute.

The Ugly Truth About Models [The Daily Beast]
Picture Me [Facebook]
Interview With Sara Ziff, Then Aged 19 [ZoneZero]

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