“I am not a photographer, I’m a whore.”

“I am not a photographer, I am a whore,” she said. The audience laughed as she pointed toward the photographer, her short body-hugging gold lame dress swirling slightly as she turned on her impossibly high heels toward her mother who sat in the front row with a look of pure pride on her face.

“I took four photos of my life, the ones he wanted me to take,” again, she looked at the photographer, who sat smiling at her, “And the rest? I took photos of my family.”

We were at the opening of a photographic exhibition of a friend of mine. Well, actually he’s a friend of my sister’s and god father to my delicious nephews, but now also a friend of mine. He’s a photographer. A brilliant one, it turns out, something I’d heard but never seen for myself. Now I have.

His exhibition is of photos he has taken of transgender sex workers. I called them prostitutes, not knowing that term is not okay. It implies that they are doing it by force. These people have chosen to do it (admittedly, sometimes by necessity), thus the better term sex worker. While I’m not one for enforcing too much ‘PCness’ (I’m a cripple, I don’t mind), I am aware of people’s feelings, or try to be.

I sat listening to the panel discussion, very much a white, middle-class woman, the product of a wonderful, but highly protected, childhood in white apartheid South Africa and watched, absorbed and thought. It’s a long time since I’ve attended something as visually and mentally thought-provoking.

Obviously, being an adult now, I’m not so protected. To be honest, as kids we saw a few red light districts too – my mother’s an anthropologist and is fascinated by people, all of them. I’ve seen my fair share of the seedy underbelly of society. I work in HIV, I’ve heard the stories. I’m well aware of the violent undercurrent associated with everyday life in this country. Everyday life for a transgender person? Everyday life for a transgender sex worker? Well, yes, one can only imagine.

The photos are beautiful black-and-white pictures. Ethereal, with lots of white space, mostly nude, but not in-your-face nude. They’re gentle. This is something I’ve never associated with sex work – gentleness. What I hadn’t thought about was the fact that behind sex work there are sex workers. People. Some of them are gentle people. It shines from the images.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never thought of sex workers as violent or horrible people. It’s just that I never thought about it at all. It’s exhibitions – and panel discussions – like these, and the artists who create them, that allow us a tiny glimpse into lives that we previously never understood.

What a privilege.

One thing got me riled though. This, too, was a good feeling. The feeling of debate, the feeling of militancy. One of the speakers was an activist woman, well-spoken and obviously carefully thoughtful. She had come to challenge the photographer which, I think, was why she had been invited. And challenge him she did, asking him how he proposed to protect these women whose pictures were now in a public display area. These women who are already enormous targets in their communities, due to their choices.

“These pictures are on display here, exposed to arbitrary people – students, cleaners,” she said.

My blood boiled. Arbitrary people? Students? Cleaners? We must now assume that only people invited to the opening, or those that are carefully screened, may see these images. These images of women – who, if the two that spoke’s experiences are anything to go by, felt safe in the photographer’s hands – are only suitable for a select few?

I get her point. These women deal with daily threats to their well-being, in a variety of forms, some chosen, most not, but this is something they’ve chosen to do. A brave, beautiful, move, that I can only hope will have the same effect on others as it had on me – to make us think and try our hardest to understand and to be humans, to be human, regardless of gender or job choice because, after all, take our clothes off and put us on a white background in front of a brilliant photographer and we’re all just one thing: beautiful.

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2 Responses to “I am not a photographer, I’m a whore.”

  1. Pingback: “I am not a photographer, I’m a whore.” | Robert Hamblin

  2. Pingback: “I am not a photographer, I’m a whore.” -Briony Chisolm on my opening night | Robert Hamblin

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