Picture Me: A Model’s Diary follows Sara Ziff, a young model at the top of the fashion world, as she falls first in and then out of love with this stunningly inhuman industry.
The daughter of a professor, Ziff comes from an educated and well-off family and her decision to go into modeling has put her at odds with her parents’ expectations. When the films starts she is nineteen and, having modeled since the age of fourteen her parents are ready for her to go to college (she, however, has other ideas).
The film is shot primarily by Ziff’s boyfriend, Ole Schell, who follows her around the world for four crazy years of photo shoots and Fashion Weeks. Their relationship isn’t exactly clear—he seems much older than her, and he’s the only one watching out for her on these globe-trotting expeditions. Ziff only talks to her parents on the phone very rarely and she seems to become more and more fragile as her modeling career evolves.
Picture Me paints a disturbing picture of the fashion industry primarily through what it does not depict: not once do we see Ziff (or anyone else) eat anything during the film, though everyone smokes constantly, and there is offhand talk of cocaine. No one seems to do much sleeping either, and the girls are subjected to paparazzi at all times, even when they’re backstage completely naked. Perhaps because she has the benefit of an intellectual family and a good education, Ziff begins to get unhappy with how she’s treated—like a doll, not like a human being. Eventually, even the $100,000 checks she gets start to lose their allure.
Ziff and Schell interview many other models and this adds substance to the film. They all seem to know each other and care for each other though it’s pretty disturbing to see that many emaciated people in one place. We hear horror stories from several: one is in huge debt to her modeling agency and doesn’t know how to pay it back; another emigrated from Eastern Europe to become a model, had an unplanned child at 17, and now doesn’t know what else to do. Though we only get snippets of these women’s stories, it’s easy to see that the anecdotes they’re willing to discuss on film are really only the tip of the iceberg.
After gallivanting around the world’s fashion capitals for four years, Ziff decides that she wants to do more with her life, and enrolls at Columbia University. Though it might seem superficial or even self-pitying to some (particularly Jeanette Catsoulis of the “New York Times,” who recently eviscerated the film), I found “Picture me” to be very affecting. Ziff is so young and naïve at the beginning of her journey that what we’re really watching is her personality taking shape over the course of the film. By the time she’s 23 she has developed not only a sense of perspective but a backbone.