The Problem with Instagram Casting Goes Way Beyond Your Phone Screen

As the situation with Gosha Rubchinskiy showed, the strengths of Instagram casting are also its dangerous weaknesses.

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Dec 18 2018, 8:41pm

As the #MeToo movement evolved over the last year and a half, it has mostly been photographers who have been #cancelled from fashion industry’s ranks. But earlier this month, street casting practices came into question after a 16-year-old boy accused Russian streetwear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy of soliciting nude photos via Instagram and the messaging platform WhatsApp.

After the allegations became public, Rubchinskiy allegedly redacted messages between himself and the boy, and released a statement through his team denying any wrongdoing by insisting that he was not asking for nude photos, but rather for photos as part of his casting process. (Rubchinskiy regularly casts “boys” from the street and online via Instagram to model.) While there’s yet to be a definitive outcome in the Rubchinskiy case, Adidas—which has a multi-season deal with Rubchinskiy—announced last week that it is investigating the allegations.

While some (if not many) modeling agencies have a disconcerting past when it comes to safeguarding models’ well-being, street casting—which includes Instagram casting as far as the 2010s are concerned—is muddied by its own set of ethical issues.

Street casting is basically how it sounds: Casting directors and designers are able to put out a casting call to Joe Nobody with no agency to attract new talent, those undiscovered faces who seem more raw and authentic than the typical agency model. Once Instagram became the de facto networking platform for the fashion set, “street castings” went digital, and those directors and designers began soliciting entries, which typically includes sending along your measurements, some photos, and your Instagram handle.

Instagram is used a discovery tool by almost all major agencies, meaning that “street casting” is now essentially all casting. Eckhaus Latta, Vaquera, and Demna-era Balenciaga have all done street castings, but of course, Rubchinskiy is best known for this kind of Instagram call to action, with the designer himself reviewing the submissions.

As the situation with Rubchinskiy showed, street casting leaves unsigned minors, eager to be discovered via the Gram, without protections that belonging to an agency affords. Where are the checks on authority? What are the boundaries between professional inquiries and inappropriate solicitation? And, perhaps at the core of all of this, is there something systemic about the process of using social media to cast models that necessarily leads to inappropriate behavior and abuses of power?

GARAGE is not presently casting any stories using Instagram, though Claudine Ingeneri, co-founder of Noir Castings, with whom we are working for our forthcoming issue, said she certainly understands its place in the industry. “Instagram, along with other forms of social media allows us to cast a wider net rather than just be restricted to model or management agencies for bookings,” Ingeneri said. “We can offer potential models and/or personalities an opportunity that they may not otherwise have. And, affords our clients a chance to discover a diverse spectrum of talent outside of traditional type of models.”

(Of the seven other casting directors to whom GARAGE reached out for this story, three declined to comment and four did not respond at all.)

The primary structural issue, as founder of the non-profit Model Alliance Sara Ziff sees it, is that the lack of regulation and enforcement in the modeling industry allows for purported casting calls in the first place, whether conducted in person or online—which are actually instances of outright financial scams, solicitation of child pornography, and even sex trafficking.

“The modeling industry does not have standards for professional conduct, even at the highest levels of the industry,” Ziff says. “And lower down the food chain, for models who aren't represented, it's even more like the Wild West.” And the fact that “most aspiring models are young, naive and eager to get their foot in the door, creates an environment ripe for exploitation.”

It’s worth noting, too, that while the boy’s age is important to this specific instance, fashion’s obsession with youth culture isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. And if it did, where would that leave a brand whose entire ethos rests on the confluence of streetwear, skateboarding, and global youth? What of the Rubchinskiy universe, and those like it, where young people reign, and rely on the seemingly progressive fashion world to help them lead cultural change? Teenagers and aspiring models will still be interested in modeling and fashion, in Russia or beyond, all the while idolizing designers and hoping to land their big break. Street casting and Instagram casting calls just make those dreams feel like they’re more attainable, particularly as Instagram’s fashion-friendly aesthetic primes its users for that kind of dream.

But for the same reasons Instagram makes one’s modeling dreams seem closer than ever—namely, by bridging the gap between power player and aspirants—Instagram also presents the opportunity for misconduct. It was on Instagram that Rubchinskiy sent out the modeling calls, on Instagram that the hopeful models first contacted him, and it was on Instagram that the allegations also came out.

Various legislative bodies and industry groups have attempted to thwart the opportunity for abuses to occur, from the Child Model Act in New York (which the Model Alliance lobbied for), to the LVMH and Kering’s 2017 charter on model well-being.

Ziff argues that such measures, in their current form and manner of enforcement, aren’t enough to stymie abuses of power. But the problem goes one step deeper: It’s not that people in charge don’t want to enforce the rules. It’s that they’re difficult to enforce given the global nature of the industry. For example, Comme des Garçons handles Rubchinskiy’s trademarked products and the brand shows in Russia (when it presented seasonal collections), leaving it outside the corporate and legal jurisdiction of LVMH or Kering and the European Union. (For its part, the Model Alliance announced its RESPECT Program, under which models will be able to file confidential complaints that will be independently investigated, while there will also be training and education programs for companies and agencies.)

Michael Pursa, a London-based 17-year-old who has participated in casting calls for Corella, Liam Hodges, and Selfridges (and is friends with the boy who first reported Rubchinskiy to High Fashion Talk Group) says the street castings he’s participated in have been very professional, “with no pressure put on the model as the person inviting you is quite certain you’re not a professional model and any discomfort may scare you away.”

Without the proper regulations and enforcement mechanisms, though, he may not always be so lucky.

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