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Picture Me

Ole Schell talks exclusively with Dazed Digital about documenting the ugly side of the modeling industry.

Many men would admit that they would love to date a model. But the person they think they want to date is the woman on the catwalk, or the one in magazine editorials, billboards or backstage shots. In reality, dating a model is being with a young, beautiful woman involved in a grueling, taxing and often emotionally hazardous job. Just as the actual life of a model is often quite different from the frothy fantasy that models are hired to embody. Co-directors and former couple, Sara Ziff and Ole Schell know this reality well.

During her twelve years modeling, Sara Ziff reached the upper echelons of the fashion before leaving to study English and Fine Arts at Columbia University. Scouted at age 14 coming home from the Dalton High School in New York City, the daughter of a NYU neurobiologist and a lawyer was soon earning more than her father as the face of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Stella McCartney, Dolce & Gabbana and Gap.

Ole Schell was raised by two writers in the Bolinas California artists community outside San Francisco. He graduated from NYU's premiere film school and currently directs films and fashion commercials for companies such as Virgin Mobile, Tumi, Miss Sixty and American Eagle. As the co-founder of the New York and Beijing Digital Bazooka film production company, Schell directed "Win In China," an upcoming documentary about the byproducts of China's rapid social and economic growth. He also produced and directed a series on Chinese youth culture for "Current TV," Al Gore's network and reported on the American election and politics for Channel 4 in Britain.

When they started dating, Schell and Ziff decided to keep fashion's unique stresses at bay by documenting the troubling division between the beguiling illusions produced by the modeling industry and the reality the models themselves often experience. The result is "Picture Me," a documentary about the hidden aspects of a complex industry that is compulsively documented but almost never deconstructed. "Picture Me" developed as Ziff's qualms about the modeling industry became expressed through the footage by Schell which he shot as he accompanied her to castings, shoots, catwalks, rare moments of rest and interviews with top models such as Diana Dondoe, Tanya Dziahileva, Irina Lazareanu, Olga Scherer, Lisa Cant, and Missy Rayder. "Picture Me," premiered at the Gen Art film festival and has since won the “Leonardo’s Horse Award” for best picture at the 2009 Milan International Film festival.

Ziff and I spoke for an interview with TANK magazine. But here I talk exclusively with Schell about his perspective on shooting the unattractive reality of modeling.

Dazed Digital: How did you and Sara first conceive of this film?
Ole Schell: I had just come out of film school at NYU and was unemployed so I started to carry a video camera everywhere Sara and I went. For a couple of years I tagged along with Sara to castings photo-shoots and shows filming her as she began her career.

DD: Did you experience much resistance to your presence with the camera?
Ole Schell: There were certainly times when we met resistance. I can’t tell you how many fashion shows and shoots I was thrown off of. On one occasion Sara was doing a private Gucci fashion show at the mansion of Mr. Chow, the famous restaurateur in Los Angeles. I was minding my own business getting some b-roll when I was suddenly escorted out by armed guards past fifty or so celebrities like Steven Spielberg, Adrien Brody, Jeremy Piven and Charlice Theron. With guns prominently displayed, the guards took me to a holding cell downstairs, held me for several hours and confiscated my camera and all our tapes. I remember hearing the bass from the show upstairs as the guards interrogated me. I jokingly asked if they were going to water-board me but it fell on deaf ears.

DD: Besides the thugs, did you have any trepidation about showing the film?
Ole Schell: Sara had moments of real hesitation to even show the film. It’s very up-close and personal. I had access to film her in intimate moments, but we had to walk a fine line. In the end I think we found a balance and both felt it was important to tell Sara and other models’ stories and shed some light on some of the lesser known sides of the industry.

DD: In terms of those stories, so much critical focus on the industry is about models' weight and the racial make-up of the catwalk. Do you think these are the major issues for models, or are these just trendy topics for the general media?
Ole Schell: People removed from the modeling industry often have firm opinions about it, but generally have little first hand experience in it. I can’t tell you how many times middle aged ladies at cocktail parties came up to us and suggested that Sara didn’t eat or needed to eat more, or that all models must starve themselves to look like Sara. I think this comes from an insecurity instilled in women by looking at these images of beautiful and often thin young women. What’s hard to believe for some people is that a lot of these young women actually look like this naturally.

DD: Did any of the models speak directly to this tension with non-models?
Ole Schell: Yes, have a look at this exchange from an interview with model Sena Cech:
Ole: What do you think normal girls think of you guys?
Sena Cech: They often say "When I look in magazines I feel like so down about myself and I don't think they should use girls that are so strangely shaped." And I'm just like...Sorry dude. This is how I am. You've seen me eat. I don't work out. This is how I look.
Here is another exchange from our film on thinness from the models themselves:

Missy Rayder: I just had this really warped perception of my body and in modeling, your body is just your body. And you know, its not connected to your mind, its not connected to yourself-- it's just you are a body… I never had that perfect fit for the shows, you know. I wasn't as tall as the other girls, my hips where bigger. I remember putting on the clothes and just knowing that, oh this isn't going to fit and that's not going to fit.
Caitriona Balfe: I mean at castings, believe me, I've had people have slapped my thighs and I'm not in any sense over-weight and never have been. I've maintained the same weight for a long time but they'll like slap your butt and be like “Oh...fat” in Italian or French you know? She’s too big here.
Missy Rayder: I think that the thinness of girls has become so extreme that you can't imagine that all those girls are naturally that thin and I don't think girls need to be that thin either.
Diana Dondo: Designers want thin girls to put their clothes on because clothes look better on a thin tall person no matter what anybody says. It just looks better.

DD: All this is true but well-documented. The other issues that you discuss are less publicized and possibly more pertinent. Were you concerned that weight would become the main theme of the documentary or the press it received?
Ole Schell: Everyone fixates on the thinness of models and assumes they have eating disorders, but many of these girls are actually teenagers who are naturally very thin and haven’t fully developed yet. So the notion that a majority of models are anorexic is not really accurate. Certainly there are some but it is not as pervasive as it is portrayed in the media.

DD: Besides the usual amount of appreciation for beautiful women, were you especially enamored with fashion and fashion images before meeting Sara?
Ole Schell: I come from California and had no clue about the industry before meeting Sara. I was the consummate outsider. I certainly had no idea that models often drop out of their first or second year of high school to pursue their careers, or that nightclubs would corral underage models in large numbers to “class up the place,” or that the cadre of top show models who travel from New York, to Milan and Paris was so small. I found the machinations of the industry intriguing and hopefully some of that was captured in the film.

DD: How did you work to articulate the contrast between the fantasy and reality to the industry?
Ole Schell: Visually Sara and I juxtaposed the glossy public image of the fashion industry with the inner, more personal world of the models by contrasting glossy HD footage of shoots and fashion shows that the public sees with the grainy, handheld footage shot backstage. We saw that juxtaposition as a way to reflect the reality vs. the fantasy.

DD: Advocates for ethnic diversity on fashion pages often complain about the recent trend for very young, blond and often interchangeable Eastern European models. But your film, and especially the interviews with Tanya Dziahileva, make it clear that these girls are hardly from he privileged backgrounds most critics associate with "blond beauty." Is fashion exploiting these girls, misrepresenting them or helping them?
Ole Schell: I remember being backstage and interviewing Tanya D. She had already been working for two years but was only sixteen.When I asked about her past life in Belarus she went silent only saying she had lived in a one-room apartment with her mom and that it was really hard. When I probed further she very seriously suggested she didn’t want to talk about it. So for someone like her the industry was a total life changer. That’s the reality. Intellectuals can debate the merits of scantily clad women on billboards but for some people that’s not of the utmost concern.