The New Casting Collective Looking for Stories More Than Faces

Photo by Emon Toufanian

With new parameters of what makes a model, the floodgates have opened on what seems like an endless list of fresh runway players on the scene. The surge of the street has caused brands to call upon its energy to revitalize marketing campaigns and include the artists, students, and influencers that they once only tried to sell to. Enter the AKRAV collective who has picked up high profile clients like Dior, Celine, Vivienne Westwood, and Gucci all who are looking for unique faces to seduce new consumers into their luxury terrain. Ran in part by Sarah Benjamin along with her partner Joie Duke Ryan, the twenty-something, intermittent photographer moved in 2013 to New York from her hometown of Jerusalem and started the casting and management agency out of dire necessity to get the many models she befriended fair rates. Somewhere between the chilly blur that was the European men shows, couture, and the start of the fashion season stateside, we spoke with Benjamin about her street scouting process, how she got her start, and what really makes a model stand out from the crowd.

Where does the name Akrav come from and when did you first start it?
The name Akrav means scorpion in Hebrew. I just liked the animal and I wanted to find a name that nobody knew what it meant. I didn’t want to be a corny acronym. I started Akrav in March (2018) but we weren’t really a collective until the end of June when the full team came on board.

The business of fusing representing talent and casting them I’ve seen more, as of late. What made you go down that path? I understand the process of casting talent, you have clients and you want to connect the right model to them. But why did you first want to start representing the talent, too?
It happened naturally. At first, we didn’t know if we wanted to be casting or an agency. Through scouting for specific jobs we met these amazing kids and in getting to know them found out how hard it is for unsigned talent to be paid properly and manage themselves. No one teaches you the difference between an editorial or a campaign. We started giving a lot of advice to our friends who were coming to us with their booking requests and one day said, let’s start an agency. There needs to be an agency like us.

“…we met these amazing kids and in getting to know them found out how hard it is for unsigned talent to be paid properly and manage themselves. No one teaches you the difference between an editorial or a campaign.

Exploitation when it comes to models and fees is definitely something that’s come up in talks recently. Do you think that in this current iteration of fashion’s evolution that there is a need for more of these hybrid agencies that help street-casted kids make sure that they can make a living off of this?
No one knows what’s going to happen because everything is changing so much – with or without the hybrid agencies, making a full time living off of modeling is super hard. However, I do think that the existence of these agencies is important to make sure kids get paid from a project. The other valuable thing about this new model of agencies is that they’re smaller and more based on personal relationships and community. Some of our kids are now working closely as photo assistants or stylist assistants with creatives we introduced them to. I think the community goes a long way and can open opportunities that surpass modeling.

Akrav already has a very impressive roster. East coast, west coast, Europe. My question now is how did you get here – talk about how you first got your start in the industry. I know you moved from Jerusalem a few years back to New York but where did you first find work in the industry and how did you get your footing?
I’ve been doing the same thing for eight years. Shooting the people I’m around, making little videos and photo series’. Nothing for sale, just because it’s what I like to do. I met Dexter Navy back in 2017- he’s my favorite artist- and we shared a common vision. I started casting for the A$AP Forever [music video], and from there it continued. I never really assisted anyone, and if I did I quickly got fired.

Yes, that was going to be my next question naturally. Sounds like you were always doing it by yourself from the jump.
There’s always someone in New York that will give you $50 to work your ass off for them – go scouting or whatever. I hated doing these things. I preferred working at a bar and taking pictures. But I’ve always had the same casting style and for whatever reason last year in 2018 people really started paying attention.

What gave you the confidence to transition from doing some of those smaller freelance projects to finally saying no I want to establish myself as a casting director with this level of clientele. Or was it just a naturally evolving process?
I think it was. My confidence came with time. I had very little confidence going into this but knew that if I was brave and can just figure it out as I go I can probably pass. My mom always says “if you can’t convince them, confuse them.” I always thought that was super funny. It’s about saying “yes I can do this” no matter what it is (even if you never done this before) and then figuring it out backward. Once you’ve done this enough you know you can do it again. The clientele came later. At first, I was all okay cool, I’ll do a music video here and there and somehow it grew into the most precious projects of fashion and cinema. I just kept going at it and eventually, it started working out

Photo by Emon Toufanian

Do you think digitally the digital Instagram social media wave has kind of helped you in the process of casting or do you prefer more traditional forms of the process?
We cast on Instagram sometimes, but I really prefer not to. I’m bored with this whole influencer thing. You’ll never find on Instagram the people you’ll meet in person. At the same time, I can totally see how this has opened the door to so many talented people in my generation. I just think the problem with Instagram is using someone once and then never again. I’m still forming my opinion about the whole thing.

“My mom always says, ‘if you can’t convince them, confuse them'[…]It’s about saying ‘yes I can do this’ no matter what it is….”

It’s kind of democratized things in a way. Even the look of what’s considered is considered cool and beautiful has evolved whereas before you were only getting one perspective from clients or from magazines. With your experience with clients, have you had any challenges working in the casting directing industry and trying to convince them of a certain look? Is it normally a very streamlined process?
Totally! Everything is changing and none of us have an idea where things are going. But at least in my universe, it feels like it’s really in our hands right now. There is a moment in the air of giving the power to the creatives. I think others feel it also. That being said, casting is an interesting [path] because it can be very creative and important or it can be very boring and repetitive. I think it depends on the casting director- I learned to really push for casting as a creative element when it comes to new clients. I look for stories more than for faces- I am interested in a person and not a “look”. I try to gather a lot of information about each person I put up for an option so my clients can understand why this is the right kid for the role. If I need to convince anyone- then I didn’t present my idea in the right way in the first place! A well-composed pitch with enough research done and the right photographs should result in no need to convince.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a casting director?
90% of the time it’s a really boring and annoying job that’s made up of logistics and the hardest work you didn’t know you didn’t want. It’s not about Instagram stories at parties, it’s about waking up at 6 AM making sure you work hard for all of the people who you believe in. I think anyone wanting to do this and is serious about it – understand that this is a very important job in our society, and giving it your all.

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