'We Are Not Exploited': Topless Medicated Models Defend Exhibit

By Maggie Freleng

“I don't feel exploited and I am proud to be a part of it,” Jane Smith (see update below), one of the models in Richard Kern’s Medicated, etc., told VITAMIN W in a follow-up interview.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the seemingly exploitative nature of Kern’s latest exhibit of nude or half- naked young women-- this time featuring their pill bottles along with their exposed bodies.

While the initial article was more a criticism about VICE’s response the exhibit because of “young girls," "boobs,” and "x-ray vision," it is fair to say I was also confused about the concept of topless young women and the relation to their mental disorders.  

Was this exhibit exploitative? Or was there something more behind the detached faces in the art?

I spoke to some of the women featured and asked them what was really going on with all the hoopla surrounding Medicated, etc.

“There is nothing in the creation of the work that would make it exploitative,” said Smith, 32, a registered nurse, who has known and worked with Kern and his wife since 2002.

“Richard trades in sheer fascination, not subjugation,” she said.  “Richard's models may be young, but they are educated, savvy, and often artists in their own right.  I can't speak for every girl's experience, but I never felt like anything less than a collaborator working with him.”

One of the young, educated, savvy women she speaks of is Britney Maldonado, 22, who has been working with Kern since she was 18.

The Naked Truth

Currently a hostess at night and working in a vintage jewelry shop during the day, Maldonado said she also is confused by the criticism.

“I guess I don't understand what's exploitative about this exhibit,” said Maldonado. “Maybe that makes me appear foolish? I knew I was going to be talking about my disorders. I knew I was going to be shot with my pill bottles, and I knew I was doing it topless. I feel like Kern took his original style, created an intimate connection between the subject and the audience.”

Could this connection be the realness and “naked truth” in the way he shoots?

“Richard has always been interested in the details of our lives,” said Smith. “He never brings anything to dress us in, or props for us to hold, his cues come from the fabric of his models' lives.  In a way, his work is a cultural ethnography of the girls he is so fascinated by -- the young, smart, sexual, awkward, unique.”

She said because of this, the girls themselves were the inspirations for Medicated, etc.

“Medicated etc. came from the experience of shooting girls in their bathrooms and noting the little orange pill bottles lining the medicine cabinets.”  

Maldonado said she was apparently the exact muse.

Being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, insomnia, and manic depression at 15, Maldonado said there's a stigma that comes along with mental illness. 

“Many believe if you have a mental illness -- I know from first-hand experience -- you are unstable, violent, or harmful to others and yourself. I really wanted to explain my disorders, to help people understand it's not dangerous in the sense that others are at harm, or that I am violent and/or unstable.”

Do these women also feel the opposite of Kern’s exhibit -- desexualized -- because of the way society stigmatizes them? Was this a way to express themselves as confident, sexual beings?

For Smith this was one reason.

On A Peer Level

Explaining her initial attraction and coming to understand Kern’s work she said, “But the more I looked at Richard's images, the more I saw the vision of a respectful, if somewhat perverted, portraitist emerge.  Beyond the interest I had in his work and his character, I decided to shoot with him because I wanted to play with the concept of my shy young self as a sexual being.”

She questions if the tension expressed in the exhibit between the models' sexuality and their medicated lifestyle is descriptive of larger social issues and is not a trivialization of their personal struggles.

Smith stressed that Kern did not exploit them. Instead, he actually made them “larger than life” and always saw them as peers.

“Look at something as simple as the angles he uses to shoot his subjects, he is always at eye level or below. These girls are peers, or they are larger than life Amazons, looking down curiously at the man kneeling in front of them,” she said.

For Maldonado, this holds true. She said this has been a positive thing and she would do it again without question.

“I am comfortable in my skin, and it's Kern's style to shoot topless girls. I feel he was touching on the subject of an over medicated society by blurring the lines of reality and fantasy,” she said, referring to the double exposure shots of the women seemingly topless.

“When I think about it, that blurred line is something I experience with my anxiety. I get confused between what is rational and what is irrational. I don't feel exploited in any way. I'd do it again, no hesitations.”

Medicated, etc. will be up until October 12 at Feature, Inc. in Manhattan, NY.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, Jane Smith committed suicide. I was recently contacted by her sister and photographer Richard Kern to inform me of the tragedy. The family alleges she "fell off a roof, maybe because her medication." Respecting her family's wishes to keep Jane Smith's medicated life private, we have reluctantly agreed to change her name. The name Jane Smith is a pseudonym for the actual model whom I interviewed and was glad to let the world know she was not exploited.

Maggie Freleng is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer focusing on social justice, gender, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @dixiy89.

Photo: Screenshot of Maldonado from Kern's video.