Strike a pose: Research uncovers what’s behind image in the modeling industry

The casting sessions aren’t just for movie stars, but what is involved in casting decisions that can launch fashion models to fame — or at the very least — to land a job? Stephanie Sadre-Orafai, a University of Cincinnati assistant professor and socio-cultural anthropologist, spent 11 months of fieldwork at a premiere casting agency in New York to uncover the decisions that happen behind the scenes of the glossy photos and slick commercials. Her research, “Polaroids and Go-Sees: Casting Encounters, Casting Epistemologies,” was presented Nov. 17 at the 109th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans.

Sadre-Orafai focused her research on face-to-face casting interviews at casting and modeling agencies in New York to explore how casting agents consider race, the transformation of appearance, balancing fantasy and truth, and selling an image, plus how that process affects the broader American culture’s views on race and image.

“Functioning as intermediaries or brokers between modeling agencies and the clients that hire them, casting agents handle the logistical details of scheduling models’ time and negotiating their rates, as well as provide an aesthetic direction and range of options within a client’s requested specifications, typically described in terms of both ‘strength’ and ‘diversity,'” explains Sadre-Orafai in her paper.

While their work is motivated by the aesthetic, their decisions are based on more than just a pretty face. “Through their photographic practices, casting agents differentiate themselves from their advertising and editorial clients,” writes Sadre-Orafai. “Their documentary style produces bodily knowledge about models that is both diagnostic and predictive, which they use to assess models’ suitability for other photographic contexts. Reading these images, however, ultimately requires their expertise and is based on their first-hand interactions with models, which most frequently occur through casting encounters,” she says.

As the face-to-face meeting wrapped up, Sadre-Orafai says the agents took Polaroid photos and a series of digital images of four standard casting poses: the headshot, profile, torso and full-body. “Rather than a binding representation of a model, the casting images were starting points or tools agents used in conjunction with stories to try to re-create the multi-sensory dimensions of a casting interaction, with the ultimate goal of arranging a face-to-face meeting or call-back between the model and the client,” she states in the paper.

Sadre-Orafai says that one of the surprising findings from the research was that many agents were critical of the fashion industry, as the agents felt that they struggled to not only balance fantasy and authenticity but also other fashion producers’ ideas about race, as part of their work.

“Casting is about heightening, animating and eventually restaging face-to-face interactions with models,” she concludes. “As such, these casting images are never meant to replace in-person assessments. Instead, agents use layouts with their stark documentary aesthetic as tools to present clients with a greater range and number of models than they can see directly. Casting agents also emphasize the need for discursive framing of these images.”

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