The prostitutes in First Deadly Sin, Gerhard Joren’s photographic survey of the sex industry, are depicted neither as victims, nor heroes, nor villains. They are, however, depicted honestly.
A young girl in the sleeping quarters of a Manila brothel.
There’s empathy in First Deadly Sin, but not a hint of patronising middle class sympathy which could have made this an even more uncomfortable pictorial document than it is. A brothel is no place for a missionary.
We don’t know whether Joren approves or disapproves of what he is photographing – all he will say is that legalised prostitution delivers far better outcomes for the prostitutes than an even blacker market. (“Of course it should be legal – otherwise the danger to the girls is much greater.”) We do know that he is casting no moral judgment on his subjects.
First Deadly Sin had inauspicious beginnings.
The first pictures he shot in 1996 in what eventually became a five-year project across 12 countries, culminating in a 208-page photography book, were knocked back by the Swedish magazine which commissioned them. They wanted more of an expose on child prostitution, according to the editor. No shocking images of exploited child sex slaves, no story.
Having spent four weeks gaining access to and then shooting inside brothels in Manila – no mean feat – Joren was left feeling cheated, out of pocket, and even worse, unpublished.
He then sold the collection to a tabloid magazine which kept it for a year, but yet again did not publish the work.
‘I eventually asked why and they said, “We did not get upset. We were hoping for greater shock value. There’s no beatings, the customers aren’t treating the girls rough, there’s no-one who looks like they’ve got AIDS.
(‘There’s more violence inside some people’s homes than there is in a brothel,’ Joren observed in passing. He also said that it was very likely some of the girls were infected with HIV.)
The preconceived hell that European magazine editors assumed life inside an Asian brothel to be did not fit with the reality as captured by Joren’s lens…Or maybe they just weren’t sufficiently fleshy and voyeuristic for that particular market. Shot in black and white with available light, they are hardly the kind of images to get the heart racing.
‘Colour gives away too much information. Black and white helps focus, while colour is distracting,’ Gerhard explains.
He used a Nikon FM2 and Kodak TMax 3200 film (remember, the project started way back in ’96). Almost all the images were taken with a 28mm f1.4 lens, and many were at 1/8 sec.
They are grainy in appearance and gritty in subject matter. Exotic? Maybe. Glamorous or sexy? Not really…
He decided to persevere and extend his project to document other brothels in other countries and other aspects of the sex industry. He said it’s a relatively unexplored area for photojournalism, although covered extensively in other media, such as film documentary.
‘The sex industry, famously history’s oldest profession, is probably the world’s biggest business measured in turnover and employees. Yet is has generally been poorly reported,’ Joren states in his introduction to the book.
Girls get ready in the late afternoon, Rio De Janeiro.
‘The images it generates are distorted by a variety of agendas. At one extreme – in pornography – dehumanized and codified…At another extreme NGO literature – misery magnified to serve fund-raising purposes.
‘I didn’t want to take a standpoint. I wanted to photograph life as I saw it.’
He put the pictures aside for several years before deciding to publish them in book form last year. He says they represent a ‘time document’ of the late ’90s.
The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Oldest Trade’, documenting brothel and street prostitute life across Asia, Europe and the US; ‘Performance’, which looks at the various forms of sexual theatrics, from live sex shows through to porn movies (the late, lamented Australian actor Frank Thring would have been amused to know that he shared his name with a British porn director); and ‘The Commune’, which looks at life in a sex commune in France, and follows the commune’s money-making venture, the heavy metal/live sex /feminist band ‘Rockbitch’.
Joren does not go out of his way to show the women working in the brothels, grimy streets, sex theatres and pornographic films he documents as broken-spirited slaves.
In fact, he didn’t show them at all unless he had their permission, which was more often than not granted. After he had built up a portfolio of 5x7s to show prospective subjects, it became surprisingly easy to win cooperation.
‘Everyone has a story, and the urge to tell it is something few of us can resist,’ he says.
This is opposed to the ‘shag and shoot’ approach apparently employed by some photographers of a different ethical stance, in which money and bodily fluids change, um, hands before photographs are taken. Joren notes that he was never asked for money in any of the establishments he visited.
“I’m not claiming my approach is any better than anyone else, I just decided this is the way I will work,” says Joren.
‘I admire these people totally,’ he says. ‘There are all sorts of reasons why people get into this business. Some are supporting maybe 10 or 15 family members.
‘One girl in the US had a $250,000 medical bill to pay off.
‘Some are in it to improve themselves – getting money to do other things with their lives.’ He gave examples of one woman who started a consumer electronics store in Pittsburgh, and another who worked as a prostitute from the age of 18 to 24 before attaining an art degree and who is now working on her Masters.
Then, of course there are the people who are in the business to finance their drug habits, such as Sandra, who works at Kiele Weig, Rotterdam’s prostitution zone. ‘A wonderful woman who was hooked on heroin and struggled to make it to the end of each day,’ as Joren describes her in ‘Sandra’s World’, one of several text pieces which punctuate First Deadly Sin.
Sandra, a prostitute and heroin addict with her pet dog – the only thing she has left from her father’s will. Rotterdam.
‘Drugs are my pimp,’ Sandra explains in the same piece.
‘These people are you and I, even if we haven’t done what they have done,’ says Joren.
‘I’m very curious about people who “cross the line”. What does it take to be a murderer? Why do people do what they do? Everyone is almost capable of everything in certain circumstances, but everyone has a different crossing point.
‘People should take the time to try to understand what they see. They are prostitutes – automatically they are being judged. They rarely get a second chance in life.
‘We are extremely judgmental.’
Gerhard Joren’s website can be found at www.gerhardjoren.com
See Photo Review magazine Issue 36 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.
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