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On the Game
by Rob Philip, Paul van Gelder
Male prostitution is, from a photographic point of view, as tempting as it is dangerous. The visual pitfalls are numerous. Pictures of good-looking, nude boys on a bed, who do not want to be recognized and have therefore turned away their faces, may be appealing, but they confirm the existing stereotype, namely disposable bodies without identities. Another cliché is the portrayal of wasted boy prostitutes on Central Station. However, there is another reality which shows that male prostitution is far more diverse. Prostitution in the Netherlands is related to a lot of negative things: drugs, abuse, paedophilia, poverty (strangely enough) and AIDS. Male prostitution of course does not escape these connotations, but here in the Netherlands, with its liberal stance towards sex and the sex-industry, I could imagine that there was more to it than meets the eye. My only experience with prostitution was the one time a guy called me over when I left the station and asked me if I wanted to make some money. I was 19, horny and broke, the guy was reasonably handsome, so what the hack? After I sucked his dick in his car he gave me 50 bucks and I was happy. The only setback was that I left my scarf in his car and had to buy a new one, so my profit was immediately reduced… But hey, this was easy money! I started making self-portraits of myself as a hooker and try to imagine a world where prostitution was a real good job and not the degraded activity I thought it was. Soon I realized that the only way to do this proper was to photograph real prostitutes and the world they lived in. After numerous preparations, a grant from the Anne Cornelis Foundation made it possible that I submerged myself for two years in the world of callboys and gay brothels. The choice to photograph the organized gay prostitution was a very conscious one, since I was not interested in confirming all the preconceptions (see above) that already existed, but to show a new representation of the phenomenon. In my research period, I hooked up with Paul van Gelder, a Dutch anthropologist who is specialized in sexual minorities. He introduced me into a few clubs he knew and from there it took off. I still remember the first time I came in a brothel, very nervous, and with way too much equipment. Paul and I devised a trick: he introduced me as a photographer who wanted to photograph the interior of the clubs (which wasn’t a lie, I really wanted to do so), but not mention the fact that I was also interested in photographing the boys who worked there. After the introduction to the clubowner, boys started to come and look what was going on and started to get nervous when they found out that I was a photographer. Every other day there was a request from a broadcasting station, newspaper or other media that wanted to take a shot, do an item and go again. I assured them that I wasn’t going to photograph them and decided to ignore them and focus on the interiors. The fact that I was also not too old (30 at the time) and apparently not interested in them made it very easy for them to trust and relate to me. I made a few good shots from the corny, semi-chique and a bit sleazy interiors and left with Paul, leaving the boys, who were a bit confused about the fact that a photographer left the building without even trying to steal a picture. One of the boys told me later that he was even a bit insulted. Was he not worth being photographed or what!? A few day’s later I returned with the pictures and the manager, very pleased with the results, granted me another shoot in the brothel. The next time I showed up with my camera, the boys were much more at ease and started making jokes about each other. I played along and soon a few boys were brave enough to pose for me. Beforehand I made a waiver which they had to sign before posing. From the beginning I was very clear about my intentions (to expose the pictures in public) and if they had any trouble with it, they should not do it. Amazingly enough most boys I asked had no trouble with it, saying that it was nothing to be ashamed of. It confronted me with my own prejudices and left me standing in awe of so much bravery. Being conscious of their body and general appearance, they were very good posers and very willingly did the things I told them to. A lot of the boys had a pretty good idea about the angle I was looking for and suggested a lot of very good things. After I photographed the first brothel, news started to spread in the small world of gay brothels that there was a serious photographer at work and he was ‘ok’. The label ‘ok’ was a very high standard in the ‘business’ and made sure that I got access in other clubs and could roam freely in the Wonderworld of gay brothels. Later I also started to photograph boys at home, on the streets and in other environments. The thing that struck me the most was the absence of force or despair. The boys did it because of the money, and for no other reason (or it had to be the occasional sexual thrill). Money is the only master of the business and if the brothel owners didn’t pay them enough, they would go to another brothel or start for themselves (a thing that not happened very often, because the club secures their safety, something that is very hard to establish when you are on your own). It was a ongoing game between the managers, the boys and the customers. Of course you wanted champagne if the customer offered you a drink, because that is the most expensive! They were very conscious about what they were doing and they also knew it would not last forever. Most of the boys I met were in between jobs or study and made a quick buck for a year or two, three. No sad stories about abuse, drugs or other tragedies, beside the everyday drama of ‘what to wear’! Of course there were brawls (about money of course…) and I’m sure I was not told everything, but the whole atmosphere lacked the tragic events that were depicted in the media concerning gay prostitution. I’m sure that if I concentrated on the street prostitution, these stories would be numerous, but this world was already known to the masses and seemed to be the only thing known to them. The only thing I wanted to show is that the kaleidoscope of prostitution is very wide. I don’t want to say too much about the pictures, because I want the viewer to make up their own opinions. Though photographed in the Netherlands, I think that the world I show is pretty much universal. Needless to say that all the boys were over 18. I worked on this project between 1998 till 2000. The book appeared in 2006.
ISBN: 978-90-810335-1-0
Publisher: self published

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