This industry has its creeps and its pitfalls, but I love the freedom and the creativity it offers. -Sienna Hayes
I’ve posed among ancient Mayan ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula, reclined across white sand beaches in Queensland, and balanced on rocks in a crystal-clear Irish lake at sunrise. I’ve looked out from the bow of a Californian shipwreck like a figurehead and posed nude on horseback in the deserts of Utah. This is just a small sampling of the incredible places my job has taken me in the last two and a half years. At the age of 24, I’ve had the privilege of visiting 32 countries across five continents—something I never would have been able to accomplish without freelance art modeling.
It all started for me back in 2011, when I was 18 and living outside of Toronto. One of my friends was doing “trade for print” (TFP) shoots, where no money is exchanged, for hobbyist photographers. There was one shoot in particular that she showed me, which I loved. The photographs were tasteful nudes, shot with natural light and processed in black and white. Modeling looked like something fun to do on the weekends, so I made an account on Model Mayhem and set up a few TFP shoots in the area.
My first dozen shoots were clothed. And if I’m being honest, they were pretty awkward. I was not a natural at all, and could not figure out how to pose or emote. Despite this, I loved the results. They really helped to boost my self-esteem. Looking back, I find most of those images pretty embarrassing, but at 18 I thought they were great.
After a while, a photographer I had worked with before approached me about doing a nude art shoot on a set he had built. He had this big wooden box filled with lights at his studio. He wanted me to pose inside the box for some silhouetted shots. Nudity never really bothered me, and I liked his idea, so I decided to go for it. I was surprised to learn that I felt far more comfortable posing nude than I did with my clothes on. I began booking paid nude shoots on the weekends around my college schedule. It quickly became my only income. When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work, I spent the majority of my time modeling while I applied for jobs in my field.
I went on my first “modeling tour” for two and a half weeks during in the summer of 2015. The tour took me around western Canada and gave me my first real taste of full-time modeling. I loved the experience of working with such a diverse group of photographers within such a short period. Their creativity was inspiring.
It was during that tour that I began to seriously consider the possibility of modeling full time. I figured that if it didn’t work out, I still had my degree to fall back on, so I decided to go for it.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that, in order to make a good living, it would be necessary for me to travel as often as possible. When you stay in one place, your client base is limited, and there are fewer opportunities to shoot. But if you hit up several cities in a row for a short time, demand is higher, and you can work all day every day for the duration of your trip. These days, I spend at least a half of my year touring. My rates are sitting comfortably at $125 per hour and $800 per day, which allows me the financial freedom to pursue an additional two months of personal travel per year (on top of my touring schedule). A brand-new model, on the other hand, can typically expect to earn $50 per hour or $300 per day, whereas the most sought-after models can earn upward of $150 per hour or $1,000 per day.
A lot of people assume that touring is “glamorous,” but the majority of the time, this is not the case. One of the greatest misconceptions is that I get people to fly me out to all of these incredible places—but that is actually quite rare. Since I don’t have an agency, I normally decide where I want to work. Like many in my field, I pay for the travel arrangements out of my own pocket. I then notify photographers that I will be in their area either by posting about it on various social media platforms, or by sending them personal messages. That is how I am able to fill out my schedule and turn a profit.
As far as clients go, mine are pretty diverse, but they generally fall into one of four categories. By far the most common of these is the hobbyist. Foto Kammer, for example, is a software engineer. We first worked together in Canada, but we both ended up immigrating to California, so that’s where the majority of our collaborations have occurred. Our shoots have all focused on artistic nudes, and almost always take place in beautiful outdoor landscapes. Generally speaking, most hobbyists who I’ve worked with don’t focus on getting their photos published, since they are shooting mainly for their own personal enjoyment.
The second group of people who tend to hire me are full-time professionals who make their living in a different genre of photography. When I met Toronto photographer Adrian Holmes, his income primarily came from shooting events, interiors, and corporate/personal portraits. We have worked together several times for his personal projects, all of which have involved artistic nudes in unique indoor locations, such as a grandiose mansion, an abandoned bunker, and a historical house. Some of our work together has been displayed at an art show in Toronto.
A handful of times per year, I will also have the opportunity to work with full-time fine art photographers like Steve Richard. Steve hired me to model for one of his two-day workshops in Hamilton, Ontario. At the workshop, he taught photography and studio lighting techniques to eager participants. This is the most common scenario in which I get to work with professional art photographers, though they sometimes hire me for their ongoing projects as well.
I also occasionally work with more traditional types of artists, such as painters and sketch artists. In March, I had the privilege of working with Sergio Lopez in his Santa Rosa–based studio for a series of reference photos. He then used these images to create new surrealist oil paintings which were recently displayed at the Rehs Contemporary Galleries in NYC.
Although the majority of my clients are good people, there is the occasional bad apple. I always recommend checking references, but I must admit that with the volume of shooting I do—approximately 250 shoots per year at this point—I simply do not have the time to research every person I work with. Therefore, the most important tools I have for staying safe are my intuition and common sense. People who are overly complimentary about my assets, message “just to chat” at random hours, request “additional services,” or who appear to be using a fake portfolio, raise red flags for me. I simply avoid working with these people, which I’m sure has spared me from a lot of negative encounters.
Although I try to use my best judgement, I do occasionally end up in uncomfortable situations. I’ve been spanked, ogled, and had photographers intentionally sneak photos that show more than was previously agreed upon. One time in LA, a photographer wanted me to sign a model release stating that he had not forced me to do anything against my will before the shoot even began. When I refused, he told me he was ex-military, and that if he wanted to hurt me, he could block every exit. Thankfully, he was bluffing. Compared to many other models, my experiences have been quite mild. Despite the risks, I love my job, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Sadly, I am aware that my career has an expiration date. Although freelance modeling tends to accommodate a larger variety of looks and body types than agency modeling, it is generally important to have a youthful appearance. For this reason, I’ve found it prudent to have a retirement plan. Up until recently I thought I would go back to social work, but I’ve grown too accustomed to the freedom of self-employment. Thankfully, my parents taught me to be responsible with money, so I am quite close to to purchasing my first investment property. My plan is to have at least two or three pieces of real estate generating rental income by the time I retire from full-time modeling. In the meantime, I plan to make the most of the years I have left by creating the best art I can in as many corners of the world as possible.