“Butterflies Are a Sign of a Good Thing” is an observational research project focusing on women living in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and its surrounding neighborhoods. The series focuses on the local women’s methods of survival, which often includes sex work, and how minors struggle to avoid entering prostitution themselves; sometimes a difficult prospect in a place that offers few economic opportunities.

This work is a continuation of my long-term project, “I’ve Never Been Big Sick,” a series that follows women working as prostitutes in Western Europe. Through “I’ve Never Been Big Sick,” I met several African women from Nigeria and Ghana. Over time, I became closer with some of the women. I visited them not only in their work spaces but also in their private spheres. I got used to their language and their regular phone calls to relatives back home, who they support with remittances. We had traditional food together and I accompanied them to church, shopping tours, or the hairdresser. They opened up more and more to me and eventually told me about their often traumatized backgrounds and difficult journeys to Europe.

In May 2017, I decided to travel to Accra for six weeks on a generous grant. Exploring Accra and the surrounding neighborhoods was the starting point for a multi-faceted research project on the living conditions and experiences of young people in Accra, particularly sex workers.

For these women, old tragedies and living nightmares fuel their inner resolve to survive in a society plagued by economic hardships, religious restrictions, and strong misogynistic views. All the women I met had been forced to stop school for differing reasons, and thus had only attained a basic level of education. In their eyes, sex work often presents itself as the only opportunity to support their children, offer medical support for their mothers, or simply get enough food to survive.

In addition, West African culture is very much influenced by religion. This means that all of these individuals believe that their destiny has a higher calling, even if the present moment seems to indicate otherwise. Every person I met held a deep belief that their life could turn towards the good one day. This manifests in their dreams of seeking another life—a new life—abroad.

Throughout the course of my project, I produced photographs as well as interviews, videos, and drawings made by the protagonists of my images. The result is a poetic multimedia series that shows a female, outsider’s perspective on the present-day lives of young women in Accra. Some of these pictures were staged, and others made in the traditional documentary practice.

The Bubble. Accra, Ghana, 2017. Elizabeth has been working in Accra as a prostitute since she was ten years old in order to support her mother and now her son. She started working when her father died because her mother could not pay her school fees anymore. The sex business is very difficult, and she is hoping to be able to leave it behind one day. © Ulla Deventer, Winner, LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2017

For me, some of these staged constructions allowed me to focus my message. Take, for example, the portrait of Elisabeth blowing a bubble [above]. It began when I noticed her habit of chewing gum. I found that the expanding, yet empty, bubble was a simple metaphor for her fragile dreams. I then asked her to pose naked in order to remove distractions and underline the deep intimacy we shared in this moment. Although the nudity is linked to sex work, there is nothing in the frame to guide you towards prostitution. My intention is rather simplicity and empathy.

Ultimately, I aim to portray these women as my friends, not as sex workers. Indeed, as a whole, the project hopes to address the subject’s personal viewpoints while also staying open to an imaginative perspective. My goal is to produce imagery that is rich in atmosphere and emotions, while also conveying some important elements of these people’s lived reality.

I will continue this project throughout 2018.

—Ulla Deventer

Editors’ note: This project was singled out by the jury of the Emerging Talent Awards 2017. See all of the inspiring projects from this year’s 50 talents!