For the past two years I've been working on a project about sex workers in New Zealand and Australia. It's primarily a photography project, but I will also use writing, video and sound recording to share the stories of the people that I've met through the course of the project.
I'm principally interested in how sex workers collectively confront cultural stigma in order to defeat it.
Time Line Over the Last Two Years
As this not a photography project with much visibility, I'd like to share a timeline to give you an idea of the work that has so far gone into this project:
In July of 2014 I interviewed Catherine Healy from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective and Tim Barnett the MP responsible for the private member's bill that introduced the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). Both Catherine and Tim worked on the PRA legislation.
In July I also interviewed Sarah* the owner of The Bedroom in Wellington, New Zealand and some of the people who work for her.
I attended the AIDS 2014 conference, here in Melbourne, and joined sex workers to hear them talk about their experiences under the Swedish model where sex workers clients are criminalised.
In Australia I've shot photos for no fee for two escorts in exchange for interviews, photos or just contacts to support the project.
I've recently interviewed and am collaborating with a former trans-sex worker in Melbourne.
In August 2015 I helped Savannah Stone* by recording a video of her public talk at the Gasometer Hotel where she spoke openly about her work as an escort in Melbourne.
And, in August 2015 my article Decriminalising sex work in New Zealand: its history and impact was published with Open Democracy's Beyond Slavery project.
I'm still in contact with all of these people, and trying hard to make more contacts.
Mostly over the course of the last few years, I've done as much research as I can. I've read books and articles by sex workers and pro-sex work organisations. I've also studied photographers who have worked in this area and watched documentaries related to sex work. I have a mentor in Sydney who has questioned and confronted me, so I understand the importance of being able to justify my work. I want my work to be as informed as far as possible by the people I am photographing, interviewing and writing about.
Why Sex Work?
Why? Is a question that hangs heavy over a sensitive area such as this, particularly in regard to my gender and my interest as a non-sex worker in this topic. I have fiercely personal reasons that I talk with my friends about 'why?' and don't share publicly because although those reasons shape you they are not necessarily relevant to my project. I talk with some of the people I work with about those personal reasons, and I think they respect me because I respect confidentiality and trust.
There are some things, however, that I think I should share. I'll try and explain by talking about storytelling and photography.
Sex work seems to confront both traditional religious morality and some modern, radical perspectives on feminism. Society seems to have a lot to say about sex work, but doesn’t seem to be so interested in listening to sex workers.
Mainstream media, government, NGOs and people outside of the sex industry assign roles to sex workers. Sex workers are drug takers; sex workers were abused as children; sex workers are passive victims with no agency. And yet ironically, sex workers remain occasional, salacious entertainment for the media. Sex workers clients are demonised.
We stereotype people we don't know and don't understand - particularly when we are frightened of what they represent - and we exclude them.
The principal way society excludes sex workers is through shaming; shaming and stigma. Shaming and stigma silence people. Shame means you are afraid to talk. Stigma means no one will listen to you if you do. So, one reason I'm interested in this area, is because I empathise with the people in it and believe their stories need to be heard - even if through a third party like me.
It's hard to imagine that as small a thing as having a different accent from the kids at school would give you an insight into the stigma that sex workers face, but because my voice in Scotland was different from the other kids in school I know exactly what it's like to be on the outside, to be mocked, to feel how shame and stigma seek to silence you and how they can stay with you for many years.
There are many very different people working in the sex industry. There are male, female and trans sex workers. There are people who work in porn, as escorts, in a parlour or on the street. Single and married sex workers. Some with children. Some people choose to work, some are financially driven to work. So, as a writer interested in people and helping to tell their stories, it might be understandable why I'm interested in such a diverse group.
Trite as it may sound, I also care about women's rights and equality. Not all sex workers are women but many are. I am fully aware of the debate around sex work and how some believe it contributes to men's objectification of women. I can't offer any black and white opinions on that I'm afraid. I'm not a sex worker and do not claim my voice as theirs, nor do I believe I can answer the incredibly complex questions that sex work raises. But I do believe, however vainly, that I can help people share their stories. And in an odd way, as a guy, being articulate and sensitive about some of these issues I believe actually gives me a legitimate voice just because I'm intelligent and articulate enough to engage with other people's perspectives.
Writing about a person is one thing, but taking photos is quite another. Why are photos necessary? Particularly in regard to the intimacy of sex work and the discretion that goes along with it.
Photography can be very invasive and it's inherently voyeuristic. In fact, voyeurism is one of the reasons photographers return to sex work as a subject so often. Maybe voyeurism contributes to the repetition of the same tired images we associate with photos of sex workers, their clients and the places in which they work.
In some regards, I am no different in my interest. I am hardly immune to the imagery that the culture I'm surrounded by thrives on. And yes, sex work certainly is, or can be, an alluring, secret world. But I recognise it's also someone's job and more importantly I hate the cliches that are perpetuated by photographers.
One of the greatest challenges I have is not repeating those cliches. I think photography has it's greatest power when it reveals intimacy and when it goes beyond it's subject and resonates with people in a way they may not understand, but respond to because the see themselves in the images they are looking at. In relation to sex work it's very hard to treat someone as an 'other' if you recognise images of yourself. If you want an idea of what I mean have a look at photographers like Nan Goldin and Jacob aue Sobol. These are fragile images of very real, very human people; not stereotypes, not caricatures.
What's in it for me?
The honest answer is that selfishly I want a voice too. Or rather in this case I share the frustration that many of the people I've met that they are not listened to when their stories are so incredibly relevant to how they are treated in society. It's hard to explain how powerful a feeling sharing that frustration can be, but clearly it is something that informs my project.
I'd have to admit that I am still trying to work out just how to make this project work and that is one contributing factor to the length of time I believe this project will take.
This is a project I'm expecting to take five to ten years to complete. It's not something that I'll be sharing photos of on public social media over the next few years primarily because access entails integrity and that takes time. Someone may choose to let me photograph them tomorrow, but they may not wish for that photograph to be shared in five years if their life circumstances have changed.
Although this is primarily a photography project I have an ambitious plan to share and publish work through a number of mediums.
- I'll be blogging about this and other projects on an irregular basis.
- I'm learning about video in the hope that I can share interviews with sex workers and some of the people who work to support them.
- I'm hoping to get some articles published in newspapers and magazinesin Australia and New Zealand
- In the longer term I'm hoping to hold an exhibition. If I do, it will be an inclusive event for the people who have given me their time and stories.
- One of the most important parts of my project, however, is not me taking photos. Rather, it's working with sex workers to take photos for themselves. I'm really hoping to use some of my contacts to run participatory photography projects where sex workers take photos for themselves to tell their own stories.
If you are a sex worker reading this post
Firstly, you are better placed than I ever will be to tell your story. Hearing your story directly from you has far greater power to challenge stigma than any secondhand story I can tell. But, because I have time, money, knowledge and contacts; perhaps I can help you.
I never use people's real names unless they permit me to, I never share anything including writing without permission and I insist on using confidentiality agreements to protect you and me.
If you are a current or former sex worker and want to know more about my project I'd love to hear from you. You can contact me by email at email@example.com
If you are a sex worker and casually interested in where the project is going you can follow me on my closed Twitter account at @fraser_crichton where I keep a diary of sorts about things related to my photography and writing.
* The names I've used are peoples' professional names
A note on the image - a picture of a picture of a half naked woman? Stigma and stereotypes keep sex workers hanging in frames just like this.