The Act, 2016
My project, ‘The Act’, is a multi-faceted study of women who engage voluntarily in the UK sex-industry, their reasons for choosing this career path, and their feelings about their work. It includes images, and ‘stories’ in text and as well as online videos. During the project, I was involved not only as a photographer, but as a ‘normal’ woman observing other women unabashedly engaging in acts during which they exploit their sexuality and their physicality to earn their living. It was a stimulating experience from start to finish. It took me on an unexpected and daring adventure seeing life from a distinctly different perspective than one I lead. These are my thoughts on my photographic odyssey into the world of the sex industry.
Historically many feminists believe that sex work should be banned on grounds of it being the male sexual exploitation of women, others on the other hand claim it as a woman’s freedom of choice as to the work she does. In many countries, large-scale changes to sex-work laws have enabled women to work in the sex industry in ways that were not previously possible, and have made it safer for them to do so. Today’s society accepts that the industry exists and will continue to do so. Also that the stigma previously attached to women engaging in it is now much lower than ever before. As a result, it has become a chosen career path for many ‘free-thinking’ women. ‘The Act’ takes a look at some women who have elected to be a sex-worker.
Before starting this project, I knew little about the sex industry except that it existed in one form or another, but nothing specific or in significant enough detail. This lack of knowledge meant that I had to carry out a lot of background research and use the help of casting agents to find my models. For the latter, my search criteria were to find women who engaged in the sex industry of their own free will - in fact, it is their choice to do so. I excluded street prostitutes and those working in brothels, as I was uncertain that these women have the same freedom of choice as, for example, escorts, which were included in our search.
I met a lot of prospective women for a chat, and there were many, to find out how photogenic they were, more about them personally, to explain the project and to take the obligatory casting photographs.
I found myself face to face with women who were not only proud of their bodies but had chosen to use their body to earn a living. Several models pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that they were not engaged in the sex industry. For them that entailed copulation, and that was not what they did. However, I continued with my own belief that a woman who exposes her body to give any form of sexual stimulation and earns money in doing so, is in fact engaged in the sex industry.
During these informal chats I found that the life stories of my interviewees were not only very diverse, but also so unrelated to my own that the subject matter engrossed me even more and convinced me to increase the scope of the project quite considerably, and I included portraits and videoed interviews in my plan. The interviews as such have very little to do with a photographic project, but I felt that extending the still shots of the models still in their ‘costumes’ into a video would give a novel perspective. During the videos I asked the girls what their reasons were for getting involved in the sex industry and how they view their life in it. Subsequently I used extracts from our Q&A dialogue as part of their ‘background stories’ in text form, and have put the videos of the interviews online. I’d like to think that at one extreme my project is fine-art photography, and at the other end of the spectrum it might be classed as a sociological study.
In the end I invited fifteen women to take part in ‘The Act’. They are escorts, a dominatrix, porn actresses, web cam and live sex and peep show performers, striptease and lap dancing artistes, aerial artistes, slaves, and a transgender person.
My subjects varied in age, ethnicity and background, some had been to university, several needed long years of arduous training to learn the skills required for their act. Most are single, but others are in long-term relationships with female or male partners; some work their act as a team or have worked together singly in the past. Several have had physical enhancements claiming that these enhanced their self-esteem and also made them more physically attractive to their clients. Some are mothers.
With the income from their career they hope to earn enough money to ensure a bright future for them both. One brave woman is in the process of leaving the sex industry for a ‘more normal’ life, whatever her interpretation of that might be. She had been involved in the industry from 18 to 25 years of age as a topless model, a porn actress and a web cam girl.
With that one exception, all of my ‘girls’ claimed to be happy with their choice of career and their lives. Freedom is a word that they often used – not only in the choice of what they do, their working schedule, but especially in their freedom from financial worries. It was interesting to find that all of them claim to be feminists or ‘activists’, surely a slap in the face for those feminists who advocate banning the sex industry. Their attitudes to their male clientele was more often than not very ambivalent, sometimes quite derogatory, as perusal of their videoed interviews will confirm.
From the outset I considered the difficulties that I might encounter with such a touchy subject matter. For one, erotic imagery has been commonplace ever since photography was invented in the mid-19th century, sometimes in the name of art, other times purely for sexual stimulation. Also, many photographers have engaged ‘women-of-the world’ for one or other form of these kinds of imagery. I set out to avoid salacious images, erotic maybe, but not pornographic. Above all, I wanted to create fine-art from this exotic idea of mine.
I normally let my ideas for a project mature over a period of time in my own mind, doing lots of background research and letting my imagination run wild. Once I have developed the idea sufficiently, I then look for locations, models, props, etc that fit to my fully developed concept, now my idée fixe. In the case of ‘The Act’, however, my ideas matured ‘on the job’, so to speak. The talks I had with many prospective models over several months enabled me to gain an ever-deepening insight into the industry and the people engaged in it.
A typical instance of this was when I sensed from my talks with my models that they live their entire lives as if on stage in a theatre, both in performing their work as well as in their personal lives. From this observation I developed the idea to photograph the girls in mini-theatrical sets, then locate these against the black background of the studio wall. Each set was relevant to the individual ‘actress’ and her profession. In this way, we see the girl as giving a performance, acting out her role, both in her work and in her private life. It is a split second of a filmic recreation of her entire life at present. Another feature of the setting is that the girls are solo or a logical couple – slaves or two co-working porn stars. There is no male presence or any audience whatsoever. I leave it to the viewer to assume that there may have been.
Every single detail on the set was thought out, from the period of the furniture, décor, floor, the lighting and atmosphere of each set as well as the mood and performance of the model.
Sasha Flexy, the pole dancer, is from Russia. She told me that she is self-taught and spent hours training in her home with mirrors around her and a small camera on a tripod to record herself so that she could use her video to improve her act. I constructed her set to be a Russian styled living room in which she performed her now well-rehearsed moves. In another instance, Veronica, a striptease artiste hangs by her hair to perform her act. We suspended her, twirling in mid-air 3 metres above her stage (with no safety net) against a stark, medieval set with blasts of powder creating the illusion of trailing smoke.
I chose to light all of the sets cinematically. This enhanced the theatrical effect and imparted an enigmatic interpretation to their acts, sexy women on the stage which is their life.
These 15 women have conviction in what they do, even if they are in a place where most women would choose not to be. They are honest to themselves and exhibit a high degree of self-respect, certainly well above the norm. They are exceedingly eloquent and able to present their opinions forthrightly and with conviction
From the time of our first meeting to the end of the project it has been a partnership between me and each one of my models. Without their cooperation it would not have been possible. I’ll let my images, their “stories” and their interviews say the last word on this small cross-section of somewhat exceptional women engaged in the sex-industry. It has certainly been a fascinating and thought-provoking year of my life to be involved with them.