Elaine (not her real name) was 18 when she posed for her last lingerie-clad photo shoot.
It was a routine affair, and it was already her fifth time working with this particular photographer. She had become accustomed to his style and had grown to trust him — after all, he called her often, dangling the offer of “spare cash” to pose for his camera.
Having started modelling roughly a year earlier, the then-Institute of Technical Education electronics student found it an easy way to earn pocket money and save for her studies.
That shoot in 2009 was different, though, as the result was she joined the ranks of models in Singapore with nude photographs leaked online.
“At the end of the shoot, he said, ‘Why don’t you just do 10 minutes of nude shoots, and I’ll pay you $200 more’,” she said, opening up about her story for the first time to Yahoo Singapore. “Honestly, $200 for 10 minutes — to a student (like me), that’s really a lot.”
She was desperate for the money at that time, too as two ex-boyfriends had cheated her of her savings, and a former employer had not paid her more than $1,500 from a previous part-time job she did.
It was awkward, she said, but she told herself to endure it, reminding herself that it was just 10 minutes. “It’s like lighting up a cigarette and waiting till it finishes burning — it’s that kind of time frame, 10 minutes. So I just endured it, got it over and done with, and then rushed to the toilet to get my clothes back on,” she added.
He also assured her it was “just for a collection, meaning he won’t share it around, he won’t publish it and all that,” she said. It was a verbal agreement, but she had no reason to worry that he would go back on his word, since nothing untoward had happened with photos she had taken with him before.
What she didn’t expect, though, was for those fateful 10 minutes to come back and bite her. Some four years later, her boyfriend texted her in anger after discovering her nude pictures on Sammyboy Forum, a local site hosting forum threads about sex and prostitution in Asia.
“He felt cheated, and he said, ‘You told me you only took lingerie (pictures), but what is all this?’” she said, adding that she felt simultaneously shocked because she had forgotten about the existence of those photos by then.
Feeling overwhelmed and victimised by the rising number of messages from friends coming across her photos, Elaine went to the police, only to be told that they could not help her because money had changed hands.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh god, how am I going to face the world?’ and went into a short phase of depression — every day for almost a week I did nothing but smoke and drink (alcohol),” she said, recalling that she did not eat or even drink water.
Thankfully, model agent Fiona Keisha Lee managed to talk her out of her funk, and Elaine said she essentially told herself every day “it’ll be all right”, until she numbed herself to the reality of the leak.
Elaine doesn’t do photo shoots anymore, having stopped even before her pictures first surfaced last year as well as in May this year on the Singapore Hall of Shame, a local blog laced with sleazy content as well. Both sets of her pictures were eventually taken down, even though she still is not sure where they came from, who uploaded them or how they ended up being taken offline either.
Even at the events she appears at, she declines requests from people who want to photograph her, instead offering her modelling partner to pose for them.
“These days I still hide myself when people look at me with that kind of eyes, and I can’t help but ask myself, ‘Did this guy see the photos? Is he one of them? Is this secondary school kid one of those who actually saw that post?’” she said.
“I sometimes still feel inferior, like everyone’s judging me, like I'm one of the prostitutes standing at Geylang. I’m being called cheap for a mistake I made when I was young,” she said. “No advice was given, no help was there… I just hope that no other girls will fall for this because they’re tempted by money.”
Elaine is far from alone in her experience — industry players Yahoo Singapore spoke to say more than 150 amateur freelance models have over the past four years been victims of broken verbal agreements with photographers who talked them into stripping for the camera.
Their modus operandi varies, but generally photographers contact new members on international portal Model Mayhem, dangling amounts as low as $20 per hour for a two-hour fashion shoot. Alternatively, they advertise their opportunities as Time-For-CD (TFCD), meaning the model goes unpaid but will receive a compact disc of the photographs that are taken at the shoot in exchange for her time.
As they gain the trust of the young girls, these men can persuade the girls in a fully-clothed fashion shoot to do nudity, getting them to agree to fellatio or even intercourse, in extreme cases — simply by offering more and more money.
To cover their misdeeds, they work professionally with more experienced and well-known models, who will in return leave positive reviews from working with them on their Model Mayhem profiles, giving amateurs the wrong impression that they are safe to accept job offers from.
A second model and former photo leak victim, Angel Lin, told Yahoo Singapore that some photographers take risqué photographs in order to sell or trade them with other users on sex forums — what she believes happened the one time she agreed to posing nude for a photographer she, too, had worked with before.
“We don’t know who posted them online,” she said. “The photographer sells and trades our pictures, so he may not be the one who actually posted them — it could have been someone else, so we can’t stop him. It’s a vicious cycle, the sharing and trading just goes on and on.”
When models threaten to report their activities to the police, they respond by threatening to post more of their nude pictures online, often sending them one to see as proof.
Guilty parties also use multiple monikers, and even if models flag their profiles on Facebook, Model Mayhem or elsewhere, they simply close them and start new accounts under different names. Some were also on multiple occasions revealed to have stolen other photographers’ work and removed their watermarks to pass off as their own.
Activity intensified earlier this year, when entire batches of pictures of girls, both risqué and nude, were posted together in zipped files on both sex blogs and forums.
On forums, users would dig up other publicly-available pictures of the victims and share links to their Facebook profiles, where the girls became susceptible to further harassment by perverts who may have seen their pictures.
Like Elaine, Lin said she and numerous other victims of nude picture leaks had taken their cases to the police, only to be told that nothing could be done about them because it was a contractual dispute, and they had received monetary compensation for posing for the pictures.
Because most girls don’t understand their criminal or legal options sufficiently, they give up on trying to take action, assuming that it would cost them too much to engage counsel to assist them. They then just lie low and hope that talk about their pictures will die down.
“We’re in this helpless situation where we can’t really do much,” said Lin. “We can ask the moderator to take it down, but he may or may not do so because we do not have copyright (to the pictures), you see… so the best thing to do is just to wait for the thing to blow over.”
Models who also blog, like Peggy Heng, dedicate lengthy posts naming and shaming known culprits and their tactics, with the lists being shared on various forums and Facebook groups for local freelance models as well, in an attempt to help educate young models and warn them ahead of time to beware of preying camera-wielding men.
Talent agent Lee, also speaking to Yahoo Singapore, used to actively speak up against errant photographers until her vocal actions led her to receive threats from angry culprits.
In her view, the best way to avoid any of this happening is to simply avoid taking any picture they may not be comfortable with being publicly disseminated in the first place.
Some models, she adds, have started creating talent release forms with non-disclosure clauses that they print and ask photographers to sign before proceeding with a shoot, although the large majority continue to operate on verbal agreements and blind trust.
“There have been some other people who have been standing up and talking about this issue all the time,” she said. “We’ve done everything we can, and we’re tired; we’re all so tired… But if the girls refuse to listen, and they insist on going back to these photographers, there’s nothing we can do.”
In Part II of Yahoo Singapore’s feature series on nude model photo leaks, we ask industry players why these leaks occur, how they can concretely be prevented and if victims can still act to seek justice.
*Editor's note: Certain websites have deliberately not been hyperlinked in our story due to graphic content