The Feministing Five: Ashley Sabin

What goes on behind the scenes in the world of modeling? What’s behind the facade of beautiful photographs and expensive clothes? Ashley Sabin, co-director of the documentary Girl Model, attempts to answer just that.

The documentary follows the story of a young girl named Nadya, scouted in her Siberian countryside and brought to the bustling world of Tokyo for modeling. The offer seems to provide much needed financial relief for her family who is depending on her.

The documentary provides varying perspectives, including the modeling scout, herself a former model, and the director of the modeling agency. While humanizing these roles in the global model trade, the documentary remains riveting and horrifying. It’s a strong dose of reality for anyone who thinks modeling is a “dream job.”

The documentary premiered on PBS in March and can be viewed anytime on Netflix.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Ashley Sabin.

Anna Sterling: What inspired you to tell the story of what goes on behind closed doors in this modeling world?

Ashley Sabin: Girl Model is the first project where the subject matter came to us. Ashley Arbaugh, the scout, approached us with an idea to document “modeling and prostitution or the foggy lines that exist between the two.” It took a while to begin the project because of the obvious ethical problems of filming such subject matter. After about a year we began production and decided we would follow Ashley on a scouting trip. This led us to Nadya, the young model Ashley scouted. We did not have the intentions of uncovering but merely documenting.

AS: I notice that the film ends really open-ended. Readers are left to make their own decisions about what they’ve watched. Is this what you were hoping for?

Ashley: Our storytelling approach is to document situations and people and edit them together in a complex narrative. We don’t propose to have all the answers rather our films have more questions than answers. I find that this is more true to life. Things are not always black and white. We edited Girl Model in such a way that the audience could experience what Nadya was going through. We had many questions during the production and felt that leaving those questions in the story were important so the audience can do the work and come up with their own answers. In fact we still have many questions so for us the story is still open ended.

AS: What kind of changes are you hoping to see in the industry?

Ashley: We’ve partnered with the Model Alliance and launched a petition that is targeted towards New York legislators. Currently child models are covered under the Department of Education. This is very different than child actors who are protected under the Department of Labor. A child actor has set working hours, tutors, and there is more regulation/transparency. If the petition can succeed in convincing legislators to cover child models under the Department of Labor I think that this is a positive step in the right direction.

AS: How do you think feminism can influence some of these problems?

Ashley: Most of us walk down the street and see these young women looking back at us. The images that we see on a day-to-day [basis] are glamorized and in many ways a cryptic representation of female beauty. If we all ask ourselves what is behind the image including the labor and age of the girl I think a critical dialogue will ensue about how women should be represented in advertising, fashion, and popular culture. This is not a new conversation but one that comes out of a continuous dialogue that feminists have been having for decades. The difference now is that we live in a media saturated world where female beauty has been distorted for profit gain.

AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?

Ashley: I used to live in Boston and was deeply saddened by the recent events that happened during the marathon. The violence that has happened in the States in the last year is troubling.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

Ashley: I look towards the work of fellow filmmakers and artists for inspiration. Filmmakers that inspire me are Kelly Reichardt and Sharon Lockhart. I appreciate the risks they take in storytelling. Mary Cassatt also moves me. She created art during a period where women were not encouraged to create.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?

Ashley: I would choose a breakfast on the beach addressing issues around animals and human relationships. Breakfast is one of my favorite meals. I would take some homemade granola with fruit and yogurt, peppermint tea, and because my latest film is about animals I would hope to meet up with Jane Goodall.

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