Originally appeared on Open Eye Gallery blog, 27.01.2014
In a provocative redressing of a universally stigmatised subject,Redeye’s event Picturing Prostitution, hosted at Open Eye Gallery, exposed a refreshing perspective on the sex work trade. In her series Precious, Jane Hilton explores the lives of sex workers in remote Nevadan ranches. The only state in which prostitution is legal, this haven of profitable corporal exchange is a sharp contrast to the aged prostitutes of Malcolm Venville’sThe Women of Casa X, forced to conduct their business illegally in a poverty ridden, urban region of Mexico. Despite their opposing legal statuses, both portrayals challenge stereotypes continuously associated with the sex industry and afford the female subjects a sense of liberation from the ostricised fantasy that shrouds their very existence.
Hilton’s latest work tells an altered story to that of her previous series The Brothel, whose profusion of glittered heels, provocative poses and voracious male clients and pimps all allude to a more stereotypical portrayal of this dubious occupation. When depicted without their props and clothing, all of which reinstate their “prostitute” identity, we are faced with ambitious, tax-paying women who choose and even enjoy their lifestyles. Similarly, Venville’s subjects appear as ordinary, elderly women despite their illegal prostitute status – a divergence from the criminality we associate with the darkened alleyways of seedy, addiction-ridden neighbourhoods.
Although beginning the projects with their subjects fully clothed, both artists chose finally to photograph the women undressed. Each made references to the Western artistic tradition of the nude, with Hilton explaining, “I wanted to make them like the [iconic] muses of Renaissance paintings.”
Some of their poses do seem to resonate with those of the traditionally painted Classical nudes; “grave but not proud, sweet and pleasing, without frivolity or fear. Her eyes were lively and her gaze restrained, without trace of pride or meanness.” Depicted as reclining goddesses, these iconic figures appeared as demure, passive subjects, unaware or at least compliant of the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze.
Yet Venville’s, and certainly many of Hilton’s subjects, appear far from these “pleasing and restrained” icons. One is reminded of Goya’s The Nude Maya (1797) and Manet’s Olympia (1865), whose less-divine subjects caused controversy as they squarely returned the viewer’s gaze. Rather than passive and exploitatively exposed subjects, the power-balance is re-negotiated, as the women become active, autonomous participants, directly confronting the viewer. The Nevada women are not forced into obligatory sexual activity but rather choose to participate in a completely free and legal space. Many, Hilton claims, actually enjoy their work – something some viewers may undoubtedly find uncomfortable to hear. The women of Casa X are spurned from society, even from their own families, and their lives are perforated with horrific experiences of physical and sexual abuse. Yet their piercing gazes are fixed resolutely on the camera, revealing nothing of this dejected, abused existence. Instead, they appear forceful and emboldened, rejecting any condemnation or even pity that the viewer might afford them.
Both the subject and viewer are invited to reconsider the identities sex workers have been irrevocably associated with. Hilton’s subjects initially struggled to distance themselves from a socially enforced “self,” acting out exaggerated, pornographic poses. Similarly, the translated stories accompanying Venville’s work are filled with demeaning terms like “whoring, turning tricks and Johns.” These direct translations from interviews with the women reveal the attitude they have of themselves- external attitudes that have become ingrained within our society, even amongst the group of individuals they are directed at.
Hilton and Venville provide a platform through which these women can momentarily shed the erotic identity constructed for male satisfaction. Despite their brazen nudity, the women are not portrayed in a typically exposed and objectified manner but rather are imbued with a sense of empowerment. This inherent paradox of female empowerment and nudity serves to reexamine the naked female body away from sexual objectification.