August 24th, 2011

Underage Model’s $28 Million Suit Against Photog Likely to Hinge on Model Release

Hailey Clauson's lawsuit has provided fodder for a media debate about decency in the fashion industry, but the photographer's failure to obtain a proper model release will likely matter more to the case.

Photographer Jason Lee Parry has earned international attention this week as a defendant in a high-profile, $28 million lawsuit. A 16-year old model Parry photographed in sexy poses when she was just 15 is suing him for licensing the images without a model release. The case has triggered a debate about ideas of decency in the fashion industry. For photographers, however, the case serves as yet another reminder about the importance of obtaining proper model releases.

An image Parry made in March 2010 of a 15-year-old model sitting on a motorcycle with her legs splayed and her crotch in the center of the frame found its way onto t-shirts that were briefly sold by Urban Outfitters and other retailers. The model, Hailey Clauson, who is enjoying it-girl status with campaigns for Topshop and Zara among others, and her parents have filed suit in a New York district court claiming the photographer did not receive permission to license the images of their daughter. In fact, the suit claims that Parry failed to obtain a written model release of any kind.

Clauson and her parents also claim that the image—and others produced on the shoot—defames the model.

The clothing company, Blood is the New Black, which manufactured the shirts, Urban Outfitters, and another retailer, Brandy & Melville N.Y. Inc., are also named in the $28 million suit. The retailers have pulled the shirts from their stores.

The suit claims that Parry styled and posed the photographs of Clauson “in a blatantly salacious manner.” In addition to the image of Clauson on a motorcycle with her legs spread, the suit also points out that images of Clauson possessing beer, and riding on a motorcycle without a helmet, depicted her in violation of state and federal laws. The suit also alleges that Parry’s photos of Clauson in a leather jacket without a shirt, revealing “portions of her breasts,” are “inappropriate.”

According to the suit, Clauson’s parents were shown the images prior to their publication in Qvest magazine editorial. At that time, they claim, they complained about the image of Clauson on the motorcycle and, through Clauson’s agency at the time, Ford Models, instructed him not to publish the image.

The complaint, filed by plaintiff’s attorneys Ed Greenberg and Tamara Lannin, claims that Parry regularly creates images depicting minors in sexually suggestive poses. Parry’s “unconventional” work features “nudity, semi-nudity, sexually suggestive situations involving (only) women and what appear to be underage girls, many with bloody noses if incurred as a result of repeated drug use and/or physical violence.”

The complaint goes on to argue that Parry’s work is “out of the mainstream and unsuitable for publication” in most magazines and other media outlets.

Parry has claimed in a press release and in interviews that he was unaware that Blood is the New Black was using the image on shirts. Parry also claimed, “The photo in question was featured in the model’s portfolio on Ford’s site,” and that Clauson also featured the photographs on her own Web site.

Blood is the New Black, however, claims Parry knew the image would be put on a t-shirt, and that they were unaware that Parry did not have a proper model release.

The plaintiffs are attempting to establish that Parry exhibits a pattern of behavior of exploiting minors sexually in his images, and much of the press the case has received revolves around issues of decency in the fashion industry. It is more likely, however, that the case will hinge on whether or not Parry’s image was properly released for use on a t-shirt. If it wasn’t, as the lawsuit claims, Parry will need to show evidence that he didn’t know the image was being used on t-shirts by Blood is the New Black.

Correction: A version of this article published yesterday incorrectly stated that the filed complaint “acknowledged that Clauson’s parents were present at the shoot.” It does not. The complaint does, however, state that the shoot took place “with the full knowledge and approval of [Clauson's parents] and [her] then professional model management company.” Parry has stated that the model’s father was at the shoot, however he admitted during an interview on Good Morning America that the model’s father was not present when the photograph of Clauson on the motorcycle was made.