Two recent photographic projects focusing on sex workers stand in stark contrast to one another. One exploits them as a commodity, the other seeks to give them a voice. Why does the art world seem to value one so much more than the other?
In 2014, Spanish photographer Txema Salvans published a book of photographs entitled The Waiting Game. Produced over the course of eight years, the book features a series of 5x4 photographs of sex workers standing on the side of Catalan roads, waiting for customers. As Salvans notes, the poses are deliberately non-sexual, and the large format combined with the wide-angle makes these landscape shots featuring an isolated body, rather than environmental portraits. “The pictures are also taken from far away because I do want to protect their privacy,” Salvans noted in an interview with Cultour Magazine. As a result, the project focuses on “the context of prostitution and not on women,” Salvans explained via email.
Despite this, many of the women portrayed are identifiable, and some of the locations can easily be found. In its study of landscapes, Salvans’ project is beautiful and compelling; in its treatment of vulnerable women, however, it is darkly exploitative.
'I Kind of Lied to the Women'
According to the Cultour Magazine interview, Salvans was first researching the sex workers as part of an assignment for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. The sex workers asked not to be photographed, prompting Salvans to document them covertly by disguising himself as a road surveyor complete with a high visibility vest and an assistant holding a pole. “I never ask permission to take a photo,” he explains. “I kind of lied to the women then.” Salvans has never published any of these images to his Instagram.
The women portrayed are vulnerable. Most of those working on the sides of Spanish roads are trafficked from Eastern Europe, Africa, South America, and beyond by local mafia, often working against their will and frequently subject to violence and intimidation. Many hide their profession from family and loved ones. As Marisa Soleto, the president of the Fundacion Mujeres and a women’s rights activist observes, for many, “prostitution is not a job, it’s a submission of women into slavery.”
A Cunning Deception
When you consider that in Spain it’s illegal to photograph someone on the street without their permission if they are recognizable — regardless of what they are doing — this project seems fraught with problems. The women do not want to be photographed, and being identified may add to the risks that they encounter each day. How an artist can justify secretly photographing them against their will for artistic purposes is hard to reconcile. The camera turns their vulnerability into a commodity to be consumed from the comfort of art galleries and coffee tables.
Curator and Magnum photographer Martin Parr wrote the foreword to Salvans’ book, admiring the artist’s documentation of the interstitial landscapes that sit between the city and the sea that would otherwise remain unseen. “Prostitution does not welcome being photographed,” Parr writes, “and Salvans employed a cunning deception in order to get access to his models.”
The terminology that Parr uses is telling: he chooses the word “prostitutes” rather than the preferred term of “sex worker” and refers to them repeatedly as “models,” a term that implies consent. Models pose knowingly for a camera and do not risk being subjected to violence as a result. Sex workers who have asked not to be photographed and have then been covertly captured in large format make the word “model” grossly inappropriate.
The ethics of deceiving these vulnerable women — of taking advantage of their situation and tricking them into becoming part of an artistic endeavor to sell a coffee table book — is not questioned by Parr; instead, it is a “cunning deception” that forms part of a “developing trend” in photography that should be admired. “He could hardly believe this worked so well,” Parr gushes. The ego of the photographer as a hunter seeking trophies is central; ethical concerns for the subject do not even register.
When challenged, Parr explained via email that he now realizes that the use of the terms “prostitutes” was inappropriate, suggesting that the contemporary use of the term “sex worker” is reflective of a shift in “developments of social understanding.” When asked whether the project was ethical, exploitative, voyeuristic, and risked putting its subjects at risk, Parr chose instead to give me a general statement rather than respond directly to questions. “Throughout the history of photography,” Parr wrote. “Photographers have sought to take candid photographs and to make visible things that are often hidden from view. And throughout the history of photography, photographers have used different methods to achieve these aims. It is important that consent and vulnerability in various forms of photography are being fully and properly debated in the context of modern-day awareness. Parameters are changing all the time as fresh perspectives are taken on board which guides the evolution of the industry.”
Parr — who recently stood down from his position as director of a photography festival after having failed for more than six months to respond to accusations that he edited a racist photobook — is happy for there to be a debate, but he’s not willing to take part, nor will he acknowledge his position within it.
Silent on Ethics
Salvans was sightly more forthcoming when responding to a similar series of questions, arguing that his work, while protecting their identities, presents the sex workers as women rather than as prostitutes. For Salvans, the project focuses on prostitution and not on individuals. With one exception chosen specifically to show the contrast, Salvans claims that he “eliminated all the visual elements that reinforced the sexual character of the woman.” Salvans also discussed the challenge of not wanting to present a beautiful image, as it prevents viewers from empathizing with the subject of the photo. Notably, like Parr, Salvans did not respond to questions regarding the project’s ethics.
Salvans regards his collection of images as a “journalistic, anthropological document” and as a documentation of sex workers, it’s an honest record of a phenomenon that deserves greater public attention. However, given the ethical difficulties that it presents — particularly as it seeks to commodify the plight of these women rather than giving them any sense of agency — was there a better means of achieving this? Savlans’ project could have presented its subjects without deceiving and exploiting them.
The Answer: Collaborate
In July, artistic duo Henry/Bragg published photographs around the English city of Hull on billboards and bus shelters and through a silent, hand-held exhibition in the city center that protested against recent legislation in the city that had pushed sex workers to operate in more dangerous locations. The photographs — entitled "Absence of Evidence" — were produced in collaboration with a group of former sex workers (An Untold Story — Voices) and depict locations where the women awaited customers, several of which were also sites where sex workers experienced violence or were found murdered. The photographs are accompanied by brief captions that give insights into the dangers of such work. “She had two little boys,” one caption reads, “and it was on a boy’s birthday that she got found.”
Henry/Bragg developed this project over the course of a year, building relationships with the former sex workers and giving them cameras so that they could take photographs from their own viewpoint. As the artists explained to me, working on the streets is often not a choice and “can include coercion, drug addiction, trafficking, and extreme poverty. Their children and family may not know what they do.” Evidently, these women were in a very vulnerable position, even if they were no longer working. “We are fully aware that it can be a dangerous occupation,” Henry/Bragg explained, “and unintended exposure could place them in even more risk.”
Owning Their Past
As well as raising awareness, the photographs served a second purpose. Producing the imagery gave participants a level of detachment, Henry/Bragg explained. “This enabled them to talk about their experiences, helping them to own their past rather than letting it own them. Together, we used photography to try to get the message out there about the terrible levels of violence that have been experienced by street sex workers in Hull.” The images have also appeared elsewhere around the city and are now being publicly exhibited in London.
Rather than present sex workers as a marginalized and unfortunate “other” to be studied and sold as art, Henry/Bragg sought to give participants a means of dealing with their past while also raising public awareness and prompting further conversations about gender-based violence and the decriminalization of sex work.
Two Projects, Two Approaches
The two projects stand in stark contrast in the manner in which they treat sex workers. Salvans shows no empathy for his subjects, ignores their reluctance to be photographed, deceives them into becoming unwitting participants, and then dubs them, via Parr, as “models” and “prostitutes.” Furthermore, none of these women are in a position to challenge Salvans over the fact that these photographs break Spanish law. Any concern for their dignity or wellbeing is lost. The ends — a beautiful and unique set of trophy images — justify the means.
Henry/Bragg take their subjects and give them the power to tell their own stories, protecting their identities, and using the urban landscape as a means of engaging the public. Respect for the participants is present in every aspect of the project, outweighing the ego of the artists, and creating a body of work that achieves far more than a coffee table book.
Salvans’ project could have been different. He could, for example, have chosen to engage with the sex workers, tell their stories, and create a connection between the viewer and subject. Instead of portraying vulnerable people, he could have replaced the bodies of the sex workers with his own, replicating their poses and perhaps even the clothing. Salvans could have inserted himself into the landscape and told their story through his own physicality rather than putting that of the sex workers at risk, effectively calling attention to their circumstances through their absence rather than their presence.
Instead of a project driven by voyeurism and deception, it would be one of empathy and respect. This, surely, should be the “developing trend” that Parr admires, as opposed to a glorified mode of photojournalism that does little more than exploit and deceive its unwitting subjects.