Modern Whore is a sharp-witted, brilliantly shot, visual take on contemporary whoring in North America. Andrea Werhun and Nicole Bazuin are a talented artistic duo who, perhaps without intending to, have redefined the genre of sex worker created photo book and set a new benchmark in the visual portrayal of sex workers. To dismiss this book as some sort of middle-class porno-doco that ignores the grim reality of sex work with block colours and humour is to miss the fact that these very block colours and photographic wit, kitsch feel and photographic social commentary is a revolution in the way the sex worker story is visually told. It is to miss the intelligent use of visual storytelling and quirky pop cultural references and use of visual wit in slapping down the patriarchal notions of sex work review culture. Make no mistake about it, this photobook is clever and to be honest, I can’t recall the last time a sex work book referred to Mary Tyler Moore, can you?
Every facet of this book has been created with meticulous thought. I’ve always thought that the natural home for a photo is in a book. When asked about why a photobook, in this age of digital distribution, why put yourselves through the editorial hell of a creating a photo book, this was photographer Nicole Bazuin’s response “The printed book has a certain significance, especially these days, partially because it suggests that the content inside merits the expensive process of creating a physical object in which to house it. The luxury of a printed book is increasingly evident as publishing moves online and into e-books. Creating an artful, printed book is intended to elevate the project and support the central aesthetic theme in the book of high vs. lowbrow. For instance, Andrea could find herself working in a 5-star-hotel one evening and a mouldy basement bungalow the next. She held the ‘respectable’ position of university educated office-worker by day and the ‘role of whore by night. It’s that duality of sex work and the ironic tension of feeling both empowered and oppressed by her work which supported our choice to present a bold book within a classy format.” I find myself asking who amongst us has not had sex in a mouldy basement bungalow? and with that thought, I knew that Modern Whore transcended just a book of photos. I knew this book was not JUST another photo book of a hapless hooker sitting in a brothel with a collection of used sex toys on display. This book is smart. Modern Whore redefines what is expected from a sex working photo-moir. This is not just another photo book by a photographer who goes out of their way to mention that just because they photograph whores, they could never imagine themselves being a whore. No, this is a photo book shot by a woman that knows sex work, that explores the theme of whoredom in our modern culture and its rich spectrum as a compassionate outsider.
In the opening section of the book, Bazuin points out that she photographed Andrea in a powder pink and blue Britney Spears inspired “baby whore” look that accompanies the story of first entering sex work. She goes on to say that indeed, pastels are not a colour palette that’s synonymous with sex work, but the aesthetic of a sexualized teen Disney pop princess in the context of opening a visual conversation about female sexuality and money seemed fitting. That section includes a William Blake verse Andrea quotes about a virgin goddess plucking a flower, and so both the visuals and text establish female virginity, loss of innocence, and virgin vs. whore as early motifs.
With that level of understanding about whoring in the modern era, it comes as no surprise that the bold red hue wrapped around the cover and author/cover girl Andrea Werhun is absolutely a reference to the Sex Worker’s Rights Movement, specifically to the symbol of the red umbrella which represents sex worker solidarity - rights movement but it is so much more than that. When asked about the use of red, Bazuin said “The seductive associations with the colour red also symbolize the relationship between unconventional sexuality and shame. Shame is a theme Andrea explores throughout the book - her own shame, and the shame of others that is thrust upon her. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter an adulteress must wear a scarlet ‘A’ to mark her with the shame she is meant to feel. In the Bible, the ‘scarlet woman’ is another name for prostitute.” That comment alone gives you a sneak peek into the intelligent thought process of this legendary duo and is a lesson in feminism and body politics; “The relationship of the colour red with femininity is also of interest: red lipstick, red blood, red roses. The beauty and horror of womanhood. A dangerous lady-in-red femme fatale on a pulp novel. On our cover, Andrea poses coyly with a subtle she-devil smirk below the very un-subtle title of Modern Whore. She meets the viewer’s gaze and opens the book by presenting beauty, humour, and self-awareness. She’s oozing glamour as she embodies the trope of the ‘cover girl,’ the confident woman sashaying/shante-ing (™ RuPaul) in a tight red dress with her hair blowing in the wind machine. It’s like a Cosmopolitan magazine stripped of its sex-tip taglines. I’ve also heard that cover girls in red dresses sell more magazines, so there’s some sales strategy happening there, too.”
What is not to love about the creative juicy fruits of this powerful collaboration; a meeting of remarkable creative minds, their jaw-dropping honesty, their refreshing spin on the polarised body of the whore and therein lies the problem with Modern Whore. If you have an issue with sex workers being seen as smart, sassy, hilarious, free thinking, free-spirited characters and well, let’s be frank: as human beings then you are going to hate this book. Totally hate it, but you’re going to have to get over it because this visually ground-breaking work gives a verbal and visual lashing to the shame that underpins sex work stigma, violence and the radical feminist abolishment movement and does so with a hefty amount of humour and pop culture. In this book, they have managed not to reproduce a politics of pity, an ability that seems to elude most photographers these days. A politics of pity which is rehashed and played out in endless photobooks that give the audience a voyeuristic glimpse into the daily life of a hooker, the sad life of a 19th century fallen women who happens to be whoring in the 21st century. The image of the prostitute has become an icon in the cinema and media landscapes, and it is factual to say that the use of comedic wit and hilarity is something not usually associated with visual depictions of sex work, that is until Modern Whore.
They are quick to point out that credit must go their book designer, Laura Rojas. Who, without doubt was bang on brief in what Andrea Werhun and Bazuin wanted Modern Whore to be; “We approached Laura to design Modern Whore with some specific considerations: the book must be readable as a novel while balancing the use of photographs presented as illustrative art. I wanted the book to feel visually engaging without verging into a magazine feel. There’s a touch of the spirit of the ornate typefaces, and prismatic colour palette of 1970s Playboy magazines stripped down and streamlined to feel fresher and more timeless.” When asked if the natural flowing movement of the book was intentional, Bazuin goes on to say that “Laura’s effective use of block colours is absolutely meant to add movement and flow and to relate to the colour palettes associated with the corresponding portraits.” Modern Whore is not the first book to employ this tactic of leading the reader through the book with block colours; it is, however, the first time I can recall that it has been done with a book about sex work. Bold colours are in stark contrast to the muted tones of despair and violence that surely must come with any photographic spin of sex work; you will not find 1970s California cinematic or pornographic grainy presents in Modern Whore, that editorial cliché seems beneath this book.
What is lovely about this book review, is that by interviewing Bazuin she gave me an insight into the way the book evolved, about the interconnectivity of photography and text. “The stories and the photography for the book were interconnected in our vision from the project from its early stages. Andrea had exited the industry and was living and working on an organic farm, and I took a bus to visit her. Hanging out in her farmhouse bedroom, she shared some of the first rough writings that became the seedlings for her stories in Modern Whore. It was on that trip that I began photographing Andrea for the first time. We both love vintage ‘60s-’70s era Playboy mags, and we started musing about making our version of Playboy as if it were run by the bunnies. Visuals would be integral to the project to shift the perception of sex workers, and Andrea would create writing based on her experience. At that time, Andrea wasn’t out publicly, so we were finding creative ways to explore the idea while being ambiguous as to whether the stories were her real-life experiences.”
Then Andrea decided to make a brave, bold move and out her self as a sex worker. The impact of being an “out” and most importantly a “face-out” sex worker was not only the bravest thing a sex worker can do, but it was a stroke of creative genius. The resultant shift in focus from concealing Andrea’s identity to celebrating it sent this book off on a tangent of face slapping honesty, authenticity and originality. “When Andrea eventually decided to come out, we were able to approach the work as a more straightforward memoir, and I committed to illustrating it entirely with photographic portraits. I wanted to explore the idea of creating erotic imagery with conceptual meaning to reference and reimagine the aesthetics related to being a ‘modern whore,’ i.e. a contemporary woman making money off of her sexuality. So with the portraits, I was inspired both by exploring Andrea’s experiences specifically as well as how the themes fit into a larger thematic framework. The function I envisioned for the photographs was to be as evocative as a beautifully illustrated storybook, helping to stimulate the reader’s imagination as they experience the stories. The visuals and text can be stand-alone pieces of artwork to an extent, but I do think they benefit from being incorporated together.”
Bazuin is a talented photographer, an accomplished visual artist and storyteller. She possesses an innate ability to create photographs that are as much challenging to view as they are alluring. Indeed they are thought-provoking, evocative and I imagine difficult viewing for men who pay for sex. Firstly, the lack of nudity in abundance will no doubt render some clients confused as to the whereabouts of the obligatory tit shots. The lack of the bog standard unrealistically posed image of sex worker bent awkwardly over kitchen island whilst baking a cake, drinking a martini and simultaneously masturbating while wearing nothing but a pair of Louboutin’s will undoubtedly make people question if indeed they are reading a memoir of a former whore. That may be a reductive view of men who pay for sex, but it’s not far off the mark for the men whose self-indulgent one side penchant for sharing sexual encounters on online forums has been a staple on the online sex work world since the mid-1990s.
There is no disputing men who post comments online forums are engaging in misogynist bantering. To me, reviews are nothing more than an online pissing contest between men about their sexual prowess and a one-sided version of the sexual encounters that have. The danger of review culture, of course, is that the men get to lurk anonymously in the shadows casting disparaging comments about the visible bodies of sex workers without having to share with the world their flaccid and inadequate failings. Modern Whore’s take on review culture and the rapey nature of some of her clients is done so in a series of truthful, raw, cutting and frankly, bloody hilarious slap downs of some of the men who abused and reviewed Andrea during her days of bedding men for money. It is poetic justice. Describing a rapist as coming out of the bathroom wearing a terrycloth dressing gown helps shove these men and their rapist tendencies back to the 1970s, as does the newspaper black in block the story is printed on and the seedy night car shot that immediately follows the story. These men’s outdated bedroom attire is matched by their obsolete version of masculinity and attitude towards rape which controversially is matched by the 1970s, and 1980s feel of some of the images. Enter the Mary Tyler Moore connection. Only a pair of sharp-witted women could challenge the misogynistic review culture with such piercing painful accuracy as a swift kick in the nuts, and her responses will make you rightly cross your legs, cringe and laugh at the same time. They are polite when the refer to the written johns-cums-fantasy reviews as imaginative, I’d be more inclined to describe them as total masculine ego-driven and a hint of resentment about having to pay for sex bullshit, but this is not my book. Fortunately for you lot, Werhun’s gift of language is brilliantly spot on. Says Bazuin “It’s a delicious combination to present the fan-fiction-esque yarns some very imaginative clients had posted online on escort review boards of their appointment with Andrea, followed by her own account of the session, the ‘Modern Whore Review.’ Andrea’s responses to these ‘hobbyists’ are cutting and hilarious especially because of how intensely they contrast with what was presented in the original reviews. For instance, one client had described the sex in great detail, when in fact, they’d never actually had sex in the appointment. Visually, I wanted to play with the idea that each of these johns-cum-fantasy writers perceived Andrea through their unique lens. The campy, candy-coloured portrait series transforms Andrea based on the men’s description of her. For instance, we took the comment that she looked like “Mary Tyler Moore with slightly bigger breasts” all the way, even having Andrea’s hair chopped into a flippy bob to assume the role.”
Slating review culture with campy, candy-coloured portraits is the best response to review culture I have seen to date. Slating men for being fanciful dicks who are a bit haphazard with the truth online and rapist pricks is not without consequence. I worried if in writing this book, if in outing herself as a former whore she had opened herself up to backlash; “In terms of potential backlash, we talked through it with each other before publishing the material, and we felt that those men had chosen to post reviews of Andrea’s performance and in the same spirit, she had the right to share her own account of the experience. The larger significance is to highlight review board culture and demonstrate how one must question the validity of what they’re reading, and when girl’s careers hang in the balance, Andrea wanted to make the point that the threat of a bad review could be used as leverage by a hobbyist to pressure a girl to perform outside her boundaries. Beyond just the reviews, Modern Whore, in general, is about Andrea presenting her story, with the hope that sharing her experiences and perspective can make a positive difference towards the safety and respect owed to sex workers.”
An artistic licence is one hell of a tool to take aim at the controversial aspects of the sex industry and men who pay for sex. Modern Whore reads like a feminist manifesto. Bazuin describes it as the whoring version of a Trojan horse; “On the surface, there’s an overt, erotic aesthetic that may catch the eye and quicken the heart, but I’d like to think that the book can poke holes in the stereotypical views of whores in a way that allows Johns to see the humour and ridiculousness of those tropes and laugh along with us” Assuming men who pay for sex can indeed find the hilarity in what they do, and for me, I could not think of anything more ludicrous that plonking two strangers together, naked for an hour or two, surely only comedy and hilarity would ensue, but then again maybe that is just me, Bazuin went on to explain that if men are; “Feeling called-out by the book ultimately depends on the client. If a john reads Modern Whore and sees his own behaviour reflected in the problematic men depicted in the book, then he must question and hopefully correct his actions. I think those clients who are respectful, and kind will feel that their proper conduct is applauded”
The genius in Modern Whore is it uses photography in the way that has never been used in a sex work photo-moir before. It is artivism, feminist visual activism that challenges the visual landscape we have become so accustomed to viewing. The hooker leaning in the car shots, a skeletal drug-addled woman sucking a johns cock while holding her baby or the enslaved woman in chains is not the visual truth of sex work; No matter how much radical feminists want it to be, It’s visual rhetoric at best. “With the use of photographs, sex work becomes more visible, and that’s important when shining a light and confronting assumptions about an underground job in which whores and johns operate in secret. Art also offers a degree of ambiguity and personal interpretation that is part of why it’s so valuable. There’s an undeniable brashness about some of the images, yes, but I also think that people will also see them in their own way and have their own unique associations and sensations in response. A space for reflection, to spark conversation, and offer a different perspective is some of what art can offer towards challenging problematic depictions and treatment of whores.”
I cannot find fault with Modern Whore. Not in its design, execution, it’s message or its method, if you have not read Modern Whore then you are missing out on clever photographic innuendos littered throughout; “The photographs that get the strongest negative reaction are the images of Andrea posing as ’Carrie Kardashian’ with a bukake cum facial subbing in for pig’s blood. The photos are based on the infamous prom queen crowning scene from Carrie but with Andrea in Kim Kardashian-esque styling, and since they accompany a story called ‘Holy Ho,’ it felt appropriate to replace the bucket of blood that’s dumped on Carrie by her haters with semen instead. The shots represent the shame and stigma that society dumps on sex workers. The image is polarising. The reactions we’ve received range from repulsion to laughter, to an appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of the photograph. What I also find interesting about the cum-whore facial shots is how subversive and sexually charged they are while containing no actual nudity. It’s just Andrea’s face. And, in a broader sense, it’s Andrea showing her face that’s one of the most provocative components of the photography, because of how vulnerable it is to be out and visible as a sex worker.”
It is these not so serious photographs that challenge the seriousness of the issues surrounding sex work. “ The playful aspect of the photos is disarming because it allows them to connect with a viewer in an endearing and unpretentious fashion. Provoking a laugh and stimulating arousal are both powerful effects to have on a person, and they rely on a keen understanding of human nature. We’re imploring the audience to connect with Andrea through her humour, her sensuality, and ultimately her humanity. We’re inviting the viewer to laugh, to be turned on, and to be entertained as they learn, and it’s in that engaged state that people can be open to seeing things in a new way. For instance, one of the pinup-esque photographs would at first glance be an eye-catching erotic image of Andrea, but in addition, it’s meant to satirize the components of creating an erotic image while also allowing the viewer to imagine themselves in her position. The audience is presented with two parallel readings: one of Andrea as othered and objectified, and one of Andrea as a relatable protagonist and storyteller. In this way, a pinup can become a seemingly not-so-serious entry point to questioning the erotic imagery we encounter and to perceiving the humanity and nuance within sex work.”
I’m a harsh critique of sex work photo-books, contemporary photographers who latch on to the edginess of otherness without really knowing sex work or understanding sex workers. What sets Modern Whore apart from its counterparts has to do with the fact that the depictions draw from Werhun’s personal sex work experience and are grounded in that truth, and therefore the imagery doesn’t get stuck in a stereotypical mode. The result is multifaceted, both through Werhun’s range of experiences and the range of representations and styles explored visually, “the thing about my gaze as a photographer in this project is that I relate to Andrea in many ways. We’re close friends because we appreciate each other’s sense of humour, intellect, and creativity. So, my photographs in the book are from the perspective of knowing and connecting to Andrea as a person foremost, and sex work was her job.”
You will realise that upon reading Modern Whore that it is the manifesto for change we have been waiting for. For Bazuin as an ally and an artist looking in on sex work, she’d like her photographs of Andrea and their collaboration to help advance the depiction of sex workers, and to contribute towards a standard of image-making that abolishes exploitation and lifts up female creators. The only thing I can add to this is that they have set that standard exceptionally high, and rightly so.