Whores & Madonnas
I began this project having read Denise Brennan's book, "What’s Love Got to Do With It?", an ethnography of sex workers in a small resort town on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Built upon global inequity, Sosúa is paradoxically a place where women exert much agency and control over their lives. The stories Brennan tells of the women who move to Sosúa to pursue sex work – mostly internal migrants from Santo Domingo – paint a picture not of passive victims of circumstance but of women pragmatically carrying out plans to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
The first half of the series was approached more as portraiture than reportage and shows the women at work, inhabiting their professional personas, projecting the promise of sex. Over time, they spoke with me about their lives outside work, how they arrived in Sosúa, their weekly routine of sending remittances home to support their children. As I got to know two of the women better, they gave me access to their everyday lives – their non-performance time – and I photographed them where they lived and out and about during their off-hours.
As a result the series contrasts quite a lot to other photo essays on prostitutes, which typically place the viewer as a voyeur to a degraded yet exotic existence, with depictions that harden rather than challenge prejudice and stigma. The women in Sosúa do not live the degraded lives of outcasts but, on the contrary, have a status that reflects their centrality in the local economy. Disarmingly ordinary, they elicit not pity but empathy and respect as they defy the false dichotomy that defines a woman as either madonna or whore.