When New York magazine posted a blockbuster story in the early hours of Monday, July 27, to its website, many of the names involved were familiar: Bill Cosby, the iconic entertainer accused of drugging and assaulting dozens of women, outspoken victims such as Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson, and Jody Quon, the magazine’s director of photography, who got the story on the magazine’s cover. But one name was relatively new: Amanda Demme, the photographer who shot the striking cover. Featuring seated portraits of 35 of the women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault (plus one photo of an empty chair)—its visual impact was arguably as important as all of the interviews inside the magazine.
Demme has had multiple careers as an artist manager, music supervisor and nightclub producer. Relatively new to photography, she’s landed credits in LA Weekly, Rolling Stone and New York, and a solo exhibition at Obsolete Gallery in Venice, California in just two years. Because of her work for New York, she was fresh in photo editor Sofia Guzman’s mind when it came time to assign the ambitious project (“She’s the one who kind of spearheaded the whole concept,” Demme says of Guzman). Demme’s portrait style is both stoic and expressive, well-suited to capture the quiet dignity of Bill Cosby’s victims. “I was telling them to sit erect, don’t smile,” Demme says of her directions to the subjects. “When you look at me, you’re not looking at me, this is not a camera. You’re looking at Cosby. And you’re not mad, you’re not in pain…what you are is empowered.”
Demme was able to photograph 35 of the 46 women who have come forward to accuse Cosby of assault, but when she began, there were only 18 on board. She started shooting at her studio in Los Angeles in March, and would repeat the process six more times at multiple locations across the country as more women were recruited into the project. She describes a general uneasiness among the subjects at the start: “There’s always an uncertainty,” Demme admits, “because nobody knows why I’m shooting it a certain way.”
Though Demme “wanted to immortalize these women in a really beautiful way,” she was still a stranger to these women. In the course of each shoot, she earned their trust. The network of victims has become quite large, and after she had photographed a few of the women, they spoke to each other (or their lawyers) and vouched for Demme and her work. “They were like, ‘Oh no, they’re really cool,’ and so the word of mouth amongst their community helped bring in others,” Demme explains.
Quon gave her minimal direction, asking merely that the portraits not be “dark,” like much of Demme’s published portraiture. Quon insisted that the women not be styled. “She wanted to keep it journalistic,” Demme says. “So the only request we made was that each of the women bring a set of black clothes and a set of either white or cream or really light gray clothes.”
At the first shoot at her studio in Los Angeles, Demme and her producing partner Stephanie Westcott set up multiple sets, then decided afterwards on which one to re-create at the subsequent shoots. To maintain consistency, she recorded the location, distance and settings for her lighting setups. Some locations required adjustments, like when a smaller studio necessitated the use of a different focal length than she had started with. “I would also have each woman turn their body, put their heads down, and in that moment, I said: ‘What you are showing me is where your head has been at for all these years. What are you feeling at this one moment that you used to feel when you were alone or in pain, or just trying to figure it all out?”
She shot some in pairs, and several group portraits. The shoots could be intense, with lots of laughing, crying and hugging, but Demme says having several women at each shoot helped put the women at ease, that “as each woman saw the next woman doing it, they knew how to handle themselves.” She also shot video interviews, and encouraged the women to support and converse with each other.
Demme shot tethered with a digital camera, but she always imagined the shoot in black-and-white. “I shot it with an intention and a look that was monochromatic…where it looked like an army,” she explains. “I wanted it to look like clinical and army-like, so you didn’t see what they were wearing, you didn’t notice the body language.”
As Demme’s images came rolling into the New York offices, Quon realized they had something, and began to campaign for the story to be on the cover. There were concerns about it not being in color, so Demme went back and tried converting a few files to color. But it didn’t have the same impact, so Quon pressed for the atypical black-and-white cover. It’s “why Jody is so dope at what she does,” Demme says.
Demme filed portraits of each woman sitting and standing, and several that featured “clusters” of the women in group portraits. Then the team at New York conceived the cover, with all 35 women seated in a grid, with a single empty chair at the end of the sequence. Demme calls the empty chair “an invitation” to not only the women that Cosby abused that they couldn’t get in the story, but also to “an entire movement of women speaking up. That is their chair and these women are behind them, supporting them all the way.”