Dazed & Confused

I was interviewed for the online publication - being interviewed by journalists is always fraught with danger as a sex worker, so thought I would publish the full set of interview questions and my unedited answers.

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Tell me about Whoretography. How did the project come about?                

It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly Whoretography began, but it was somewhere between realising I was in the business of a photographic conspiracy in which my camera was acting as an agent for the falsehood of couple cohesion and intimacy, and the idea of documenting paid-for sexual intimacy as the antidote to the visual falsehoods of wedding photography.  Whoretography sits nicely at the intersection of images, technologies, society and the sex worker rights movement.  It’s the first academic, ethnographic and creative platform dedicated solely to understanding the role photography plays in sex work via self-publishing as an artistic practice.  The objectives framed a body of creative work that takes the form of a collection of soon to be published photo and artist books, zines and the recently launched Whoretography E – Magazine.  My visual activism is about exploring a set of research questions through a mixed methodology approach designed to challenge the prevailing ideology of sex-work

I work within the photographic genre of found imagery, with other peoples’ photographic material and written documents.  The material for Whoretography is sourced using cyberethnographic methods; however, online interactions alone are insufficient to develop a deep understanding of the visuals of the sex worker online community.  So I’ve conducted offline research consisting of qualitative interviews with internet based sex workers, and their customers in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States of America.  Found photography allows for an editorial style in which I can act as both as editor and author; this is not common when working with sex work imagery.  Standard approaches to visually representing sex workers include photo-voice, wherein sex workers themselves create the photographs (typically of their workspaces), and photo-essay; the publishing world is awash with photo essays that, for example, take a sneaky look inside brothels.  I wanted to avoid these visual clichés.  Working with found images means constructing new narratives from seemingly unconnected photographs to provoke critical dialogue about sex work and present an alternative view of sex work.  It allows me to take the discussion of sex worker imagery from the realms of the sex work community and place it in the wider community.  Fundamental to this goal is deconstructing the visual vocabulary of sex work imagery online to investigate the overarching questions, “Is it possible to reclaim the word ‘whore’ through creative practice as research?” and “What role does photography play in contemporary online sexual consumption. ?”

I have an interest in ensuring photography is relevant in the fight for the full decriminalisation of sex work.  We must celebrate the fact that sex workers are now image makers; we must challenge the exclusion of sex workers from online visual spaces; and we must talk about the posthumous humiliation of sex workers via the standard practice of releasing morgue photos.  The prohibitionist war on sex work is underpinned by their belief that their photographic rhetoric is photographic truth, and we must name the game when it comes to the middle-class masses being in an uproar about the apparent gentrification of sex work via some mythical photoshop gentrification tool.

I have been careful not to open Whoretography up criticism by only offering one extreme perspective on sex work, but rather a less dogmatic photographic endeavour that could convince someone and neutral or undecided ideas about sex work why the visuals of sex work are important.

How are you challenging the victim narrative of sex work?

My visual activism is about exploring a set of research questions through a mixed methodology approach designed to challenge the prevailing ideology of sex-work and to present to the viewer an alternative perception of the industry and its participants.  To stop the over-simplification of the lives of cis and non-binary gendered sex workers, and to challenge current imagery that encourages the sense that the only way of interpreting the lives of sex workers is to see them as ripe for ‘rescue’. This narrow and particular visual representation of male oppression reproduces a politics of pity that is embedded in the visual representation of sex workers.  This suggests only pity makes sense as a political, social and cultural response. 

I am committed to setting up a visual activist platform and a sex work positive publishing house. I have seen child abuse victims marketed as teen sex workers, prohibitionists create rescue images with the tonal quality of reminiscent of colonial missionary times of saving the natives from themselves, the publication and subsequent outing sex workers by newspapers, the dire consequences of the pixilated face in propelling stigma and the shaming of sex workers as a police tactic to help in the gentrification of up and coming hipster neighbourhoods. I offer a critical review of sex work photobooks, calling out the callous nature in which photographers shoot sex workers and then whose cunning deception is celebrated  by the British Journal of Photography, calling out photographers who take advantage of sex workers who pay them for visual content. I publish a magazine that discuss all aspects of sex work and photography from the spectrum of sex worker experiences The world does not need another photographic essay of the working space of sex workers nor another photo voice project of brothel workers. That’s a tired worn out gaze, what we need, what Whoretography is, is a new gaze on existing imagery that challenges notions of victimhood.  I am on a mission to shift the political landscape of sex work by forcing people to understand the visual landscape. 

What do you want people to know about sex work that isn't being talked about in mainstream discourse?

I want photography to be dragged into the discussion about sex work, once private sex work spaces now occupy very public spheres on line and the Web has brought massive change to the sex industry. As with many other industries, the technology-led disruption has changed its fundamental economics. The easy availability of information on the Internet has revolutionised the industry’s marketing techniques and its verbal and visual vocabulary. Words still matter and have their allure, but digital photographs are now fundamental to the transaction of sex.

Photography needs to form a greater part of the sex work discussion, I have learned how negatively impactful photography can be in presenting sex workers as different from and less than other people. This flows from "the power of photographs to capture elusive abstractions that one intuits before clearly understanding them" Every sex worker is reduced to a few negative assumptions by the stereotypical images in anti sex work visual rhetoric to peddle one brand of feminism over another.

So why focus on photography, why spend so much time talking about the imagery of sex work, why drag it into the debate?  The reason is that all the visual stereotyping is a kind of blindfold that enables many to ignore the fact that sex workers are first and foremost people, individual human beings like everyone else deserving of rights and safe working conditions.

What is your background as a photographer? What aesthetic are you aiming for in your Whoretography project?

I am addicted to photography; it’s a lifelong obsession of mine that began as a 2-year-old with the death of my father.  When you lose a parent as a baby, the only connection you can form with that parent is through imagery.  The last photograph before his death, the only one of us together, him proudly sitting on his 1970s motorbike.  His death sparked my purpose in life.   I bought my first camera when I was 12 and I have never been without one since; even when I was homeless for 18 months, I refused to sell my last camera.  My mother evidently thought photography was just a phase adolescent girls go through, because I was not permitted to study photography at secondary school; I went on to graduate with an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Genetics, Post Graduate in Criminology and a Graduate Diploma in Small Business Management I put photography to one side in this period, prioritising an institutionally-defined career in criminal justice, and I moved countries; I sold and traded cameras to pay rent, tuition and one-way tickets to London and Paris.  Finally, I followed my passion and become a full-time photographer; initially as a wedding photography however I eventually managed to make sex work about photography too. I undertook a Master’s Degree in creative media arts and I am now a published commercial photographer taking on United Kingdom based and international commissions and I have just been accepted as a photography PhD candidate commencing in January 2018. 

The initial aesthetic of the home page of the Whoretography website is one of the commonality, familiarity, nostalgia for vintage imagery, the photographs on the front page are of stripper audition Polaroids from the 60s & 70s, we all have memories of Polaroids and by using them on the front page I am trying to establish a sense of connection in sex worker imagery with the everyday person, I want them to see something of themselves, something they can connect visually and emotionally with however once you enter the site, the black text with vast whiteness is inspired by the work of Susan Meiselas and her photobook of black and white images, Carnival Strippers.

Why is photography 'instrumental in the war against sex workers'?

Make no mistake about it, sex work imagery is war imagery and whoever controls the image controls the message, and this is more relevant than ever.  In the prohibitionist war on sex work, the camera has been weaponized against sex workers and wielded as an agent of violence that silences the intentions, actions, and feelings of sex workers & serves to make their lives more precarious. This narrow & selective representation of male oppression reproduces a politics of pity embedded in the visual representation of sex workers. This visual representation suggests only pity makes sense as a political, social & cultural response. Prohibitionist photography acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The anti sex work lobby creates the visual rescue narrative that gives legitimacy to saving sex workers from themselves.

The prohibitionist lobby would have you believe in the irrelevance of photography to the sex work debate. The only photographic truth is the prohibitionist photographic truth. A much tried and tested prohibitionist tactic is to label anyone critiquing prohibition photography as nothing more than laziness and nitpicking.  Prohibitionist photographs tends to encapsulate the formulaic prohibitionist approach to the visual representation of sex work.  Dark alley, street walker leaning into the car, robotic fallen woman robbed of agency, distressed child, always unseen predatory male, bad mother, battered corpse.  A sense of desperation and the wafting smell of cocaine, heroin, lube and baby oil hangs heavy in the cinematic tones. The prohibitionist lobby argues that to discuss sex work photography is just laziness, that photographs do not matter and if this is the case, then it is a remarkable coincidence that prohibitionist websites are littered with visual rhetoric.

The majority of articles written about sex work are accompanied by a picture of outdoor sex work, regardless if the written words discuss indoor sex work.   The media portrayal of sex work is just as lazy as the prohibitionists.  Going to a stock photo agency website and typing prostitution hardly makes one a photo editor.   To talk about sex worker imagery is just nit-picking. A standard reaction from those who do not understand the photographic theory, visual identity and that photography is inextricably interwoven into sex work identities, narratives, and society. Prohibitionists often argue that airbrushing and photoshop have gentrified sex work.  However, if Photoshop has edited out the lower class reality of sex work, then they need only to present unedited photographs to show the class narrative that sex workers apparently remove via a Photoshop gentrification tool. If prohibitionists were honest, photographically speaking, they would acknowledge that what offends them the most is that the digital democratising of photography has robbed the middle-class masses of their control over photography and image dissemination.   A photographic revolution has taken place, and sex workers are discouraged from participating in it. The Photo-shopped gentrification of sex work is an argument designed to keep sex workers away from the digital revolution.  Through photography’s new found accessibility, sex workers now have access to an unfettered form of communication; they can now challenge social constructs about their lives.  Sex workers are now image makers and it’s difficult for prohibitionists to control the visuals of sex work if sex workers themselves now have a photographic voice of their own. If war imagery has taught us anything, it’s that those who control the image also control the message and middle-class ladies who lunch cannot keep other women in line if they can’t control how wayward women are visually constructed.

Does feminist rhetoric that is anti-sex work annoy you? What would you like to change?

Does not so much annoy me as it amuses me, the belittling of sex workers online is a thinly veiled attempt by high profile prohibitionists and their cohorts to deny sex workers access to online spaces by labelling them and dismissing them as happy hookers in order to sell to the general masses their anti sex work rhetoric. This is all about the silencing of sex worker and their supporters. I got labelled a privileged scum bag after I simply posted a tweet that thanked sex workers for their contribution to the project.  

Sex work prohibitionists are the mouth pieces for misogyny and they should invoice patriarchy for services rendered, the most hate and online violence that has ever been directed at me is from so called feminist that take offense to my existence.  Anti sex work prohibitionists stir up the hate the justifies the violence against us that then then use as proof absolute to the victimhood of whores. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been called just a hole by so called feminists. The tone of their hate is in the same vein as the defense barrister who ripped into me for 3 days as a prostitute in the witness box because I dared accuse a police officer of sexual misconduct.  I find the notion that criminalizing men’s behavior will be enough of a deterrent to end the demand for commercial sex as willfully and dangerously naive, the prisons are empty because criminalizing peoples behaviour works but not as much as I am disgusted by their twisted logic when it comes to the definition of consent – they really do not understand what they are preaching against.  I would like to see whorephobia treated like a hate crime online as seriously as other forms of hate.

Is sex work compatible with feminism?

I could not think of anything more feminist than capitalising and taking advantage of the patriarchal social conditioning of men that see them as slaves to their penises.  That see them so disempowered by their sexual needs, for whatever reason they find themselves in a sexless or sexual inadequate state, victims of circumstances that they simply have or want to pay for sex and intimacy. I'd be a foolish woman not to play on that and take advantage of a set of social circumstances that apparently renders me as the objectified one.  There is no power imbalance in sex work. Money is power, sex is power, the balance remains at equilibrium, I am merely exchanging power. if anything, it is me who occupies the position of power as I know which end of the supply and demand chain I sit on and If exclusionary feminists can only imagine my existence in terms of sad oppression, perhaps that is a reflection the fact they confuse their personal views of I would never do that, with others must never be allowed to do that.

The only time in my adult life that I have ever felt unequal to a man, is when I was in a 3 year sexual relationship in my private life until I get pregnant, miscarried and he literally sat on the end of my bed whilst my body was still expelling his baby and said, I can't deal with this, I did not sign up for this, and pulled the man card at the age of 38 and left me to alone to deal with a traumatic experience simply because he could. 

The only time I have ever felt uneasy about being a feminist and had conflict about my work practices was when I was a wedding photographer. I’d often question what role I was playing in selling the myth of the bride when, by example I’d photograph a bride who scheduled her wedding a day before her 30th birthday because apparently it is social suicide nowadays to be unwed at 30. I’d over hear brides comment that this is the day they have been dreaming about since they were little girls and I once had a mother of the bride say to me that she never thought her daughter would get married as she left it so late at the grand age of 25.  It’s not the sex trade that shakes my feminism core, it’s the wedding trade.

Is there still a myth that all female sex workers are slaves to the patriarchy and hate their profession/lives?

Yes, the prohibitionist for profit industry is banking on the proliferation of this stereotype, there is big money to be made in platforming against sex workers and ensuring they are viewed as victims ripe for the rescue. You cannot belong to an arm of feminism that is all about saving the lower class masses from themselves if you do not paint them as prime rescue fodder. I do find this slave notion difficult to comprehend as any woman who has ever gotten married is a slave to the patriarchy, the £5 billion a year wedding industry is testament to that but not one is calling for the abolishment of the wedding trade, lets criminalise men who propose said no one. Maybe we should be asking why little girls are raised to be conditioned to be wives not make the pointless statement of no little girl grows up dreaming of becoming a sex worker.  Take the case of boudoir bride photography, this is the soft porn phenomena of brides creating sexually charged images to present to their husbands to be on the night of the wedding, gift of a woman sexing herself up and self-objectification for the man she is going to marry.  I am waiting for the feminist condemnation of the commodification of the bodies of brides to be.  

Tell me about your decision to use 'whore' in the title - was there a specific reason?

The name Whoretography is complex.  It was not an easy decision to use the word whore but it’s my word, it’s a slur that is levied at me on a regular basis and whilst I am mindful of it being dismissed as a clever play on words, an advertising slogan for commercial purposes.  It’s so much more than photography + sex work and directly relates back to my original thesis question of “is it possible to reclaim the word whore through creative practice as research?” Whore is a word in state of reclamation to disempower the negative connotations attached to the lives and bodies this insult is hurled at,  It’s really in recognition of sex workers activism on social medial, reclaiming a word and disarming its power. A public declaration of sorts against the linguistically disproportionate language used to label women who choose to engage in sex work compared to that of the men who pay for their sexual services. A new term for the genre of sex work imagery.

How is fundraising going for Whoretography? What has the reception been?

The reception outside the sex work community has been less than welcoming in part because people do not understand what Whoretography is about, ironic giving I am asking people to see and understand what they are looking at in photographs. Within the global sex work community, and the sex work research community the support is strong, there is certainly precedent for visual activism when working with marginalised members of society.  It’s just a matter of preserving and taking advantage of every opportunity afforded me to make Whoretography an issue for everyone not just for industry participants.   Sourcing funding is It’s an ongoing battle, and at times, I question the amount of time I devote to the project, I am sure all art based projects must face the funding problem but Whoretography does have unique challenges. I am excluded from traditional photographic funding resources as I am working with existing imagery not creating my own, there is no rescue element of the project so supporting some arts based project that supports sex workers is not always palatable for funding bodies. In my attempt to take Whoretography mainstream I created a Linkedin profile to network but I was booted off because I wrote the name and subject of my thesis and this is evidence of the stigma you face being a sex work researcher but having said that, I have had generous help from individuals. People have donated an industrial printer, a laptop and a photographic scanner and I do have a loyal base of supporters who contribute via gofundme, it is amazing they support my work and I am grateful and humbled for the support.    I just self-funded a Master’s degree and I am about to self-fund a PhD people assume if you are not an impoverished  sex worker then you must be sitting on a mattress stuffed full of cash, it can be a tough financial struggle at times but just because I can’t get a significant injection of cash at this time is not a good enough reason to cease the project, I’m not that easily deterred. I raise money via the sale of the Whoretography magazine via blurb and ibooks,  I am working on edition two at the moment and 2018 will sell the books I created in the MA with the aim of the project being self-funding. Lately, I have been toying with the idea of adding an element of photography teaching to the project, to offer skills to sex workers exiting the industry but I am hesitant to do this as it feels like I am pandering to the prohibitionists, so I appear more palatable when applying for grants.

I have found social media to be a mixed blessing, I ask for help with funding and I get flooded with requests from men asking out to talk about photography in general, my desire to take this project mainstream apparently makes me more desirable to date,  men seem to find me more fascinating than the project, and I think this is where my experience as a sex worker overshadows my work.   Once I had lunch with a loyal follower who came to one of my talks, and I am ashamed to say this but fell for the come to lunch and we can talk funding routine, so after listening to me talk for 3 hours, at the end he said if I had the money, I would give it to you but I don’t – I felt like an utter fool and it was a harsh lesson to learn about being a vaguely interesting woman on the internet and unsolicited attention from men.  Men also have difficulty separating my photographic research from my sex work, one now former client, insisted on calling my service fee for sex work a donation and become indignant about the fact I refused to thank him on my twitter feed for supporting my art, I have no interest in partaking in the delusion about what he is paying for. I also seem to attract many men who photograph sex workers, they reach out to me saying oh, I photograph prostitutes as somehow that makes a bond between the two of us, a reason to catch up. Over the last 3 years, I have learnt to curb my disappointment, instead when I receive one of these request for a free catch up, I kindly request a small donation in via GoFundMe to support the project, needless to say – it never eventuates.

How and why did you start working as a sex worker? 

I started as a full-service sex worker in 2005, when I immigrated to the United Kingdom, I guess it was easier to become a sex worker when I removed myself from my normal context, away from question asking friends and family. I had dabbled as a topless waitress in the summers whilst I was an undergrad in the mid 90s but that was my experience with the sex industry until I arrived in the United Kingdom. I initially worked for an escort agency called Northern Star but that lasted about 4 weeks as their work practices were questionable at best, then I found myself in a relationship and ceased working.  In 2008, I returned to sex work but this time as an independent practitioner and this coincided with me going freelance as a photographer, the sex work I rationalized was a security blanket in case the photography caper did not work out.    It was a simple as buying a copy of the TNT magazine, flipping to the back and finding the advertisements.  Going independent was just a matter of finding the websites I could list myself on.  I stopped for many years as felt it was not for me and did at times have inner conflict about what I was engaging in however my views and circumstances shifted and I returned to it in 2010 seeing 3 – 5 clients a week, whilst I studied for my Masters’ Degree, it was my only source of income. I found that difficult as there is a fine line between only seeing the clients you want to see and needing to see clients to pay your bills.  I did not really enjoy the first few years of sex work, I had played what I thought the whore role was and as a result attracted clients, who conflicted with my values and beliefs, and this at times resulted in the potential for conflict, so in 2013 following reporting a client for stalking ( he was subsequently convicted of other offences against sex workers and now sits on the sex offender register) I completely changed my approach in a targeted effort to attract my ideal client base and it worked, the quality of my clients shifted literally overnight.  Most of my clients now, are they type of men I’d date and who share life experiences and value, men in their late 30s and early 40s. This is one way to avoid conflict because with conflict comes the potential for violence and frankly, I do not have the inclination to be involved in violent confrontation.  Many will dismiss this as the arrogance of privilege as I get to select my client base, but it really is nothing more or less than a small business knowing it’s target market.  I apply the same principles to my commercial photography work.

Do you want sex work to be decriminalised?

That's a two fold answer.  For my own current work practices, decriminalisation will not change my work practices, (nor would the Nordic model it has to be said) as I currently operate well within the current legislative regime, and if ever on a future occasion I find myself needing to operate outside the confines of the law for safety purposes, then I am not one to let state legislation get in the way of what I do with my own body and my own safety however just because the current legislative framework works for me, does not mean that I am so arrogant to suggest that this is best practice for all sex workers nor am I suggesting that I have not suffered stigma, been a target of vile whorephobia or a victim of crime as a result of sex work laws and attitudes in the United Kingdom. I advocate for decriminalization for sex workers across the globe not because it will undo the whorephobia I have endured and the crime committed against me but rather it will reduce the stigma for others and make work practices safer for those coming into the industry and for those who the current legal parameters are woefully inadequate underpinning this is my absolute resolve to shift the political landscape of sex work by challenging the notion that people think, when viewing sex worker imagery they are looking at something they know, all Whoretography is asking is, for people to give up their predefined concepts of sex work and start looking at what you truly see then perhaps the decriminalization of sex work will be possible.