Vera is a wonderful photographer whose work seems to effortlessly embody the story that so clearly lies behind her compositions. Put simply, there is almost a movie behind every shot you will see in this article and this is just the smallest fraction of her output. Vera's first exhibition, 'Looking In Looking Out' was held at the 'Crossroads Womens Centre' in May of this year. The exhibition was tied into the publication of 'KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: An A-Z Guide for Sex Workers' and was organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes.
Vera worked hard to produce material for this article, so lets start off with a piece that she wrote for the 'Looking In, Looking Out' exhibition.
This was the last picture of the exhibition, it is a self portrait, as I
photographed the bed where I was sleeping, the camera bag represents me.- Vera
This photo screams 'Edward Hopper' to me. I love it.- Chasmal
When I first came to London in 2000, I arrived at a squat near Brixton where Spanish friends were living. I was completely disappointed with my experience as a journalist and I needed a job to survive. One of the girls in the squat said to me "Why don’t you come and work in a peep show in Soho, all you need to do is to dance naked in a sexy way. They pay cash in hand and you let them know your availability one week in advance." After trying to get a job as an art room keeper at the Tate Modern and failing, I decided to give it a try. I never imagined that to ask for a job in the Adult Industry would change my life forever.
Three years passed and I was still working shifts in Soho. After taking a couple of introductory courses in photography I was accepted onto a Foundation Degree course in Professional Photography. Tired of moving from one evicted house to another squatted house, in a period where the authorities made it so difficult, four girlfriends and I decided to rent a big house in Streatham. We were all working in peep shows and some of us started to working in strip clubs to make some extra cash to cover the rent.
After three years, I got a BA in Photographic Arts at Westminster University, but I was so used to the stage, high heels and taking my clothes off for money that I couldn’t compromise and take the kind of job that Snappy Snaps offered me – I lasted three days. I preferred to keep my photography independent and carry on dancing, after all, I liked it.
I started taking pictures of dancers and girls like me who decided to work in the adult industry. I exhibited some photos at the University as part of the Social Documentary project. Renowned picture editor, Colin Jacobson called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to publish the pictures but I felt I was not ready. Who could tell that six years later, I am not only still in touch with him but I consider him a good friend. I am proud to say that he has agreed to edit my future book about Peep Shows. In fact, he suggested the title "Looking in, Looking Out".
By 2008, the credit crunch had started in London and I needed a break. I went to Spain but I couldn’t see myself having a nine-to-five job. So I started to work in peep shows around Europe – in Nuremberg and Bochum in Germany, Amsterdam and Gent, Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium. I was working for three or four months a year and living a bohemian life in Spain. I told my family what I do for a living because I didn’t want to lie anymore, and even though they found it very hard to accept my work, I found that the feeling that what I was doing was wrong was slowly disappearing.
By 2010, I was back in London. I applied for a University photography course and told the truth that I had been shooting photos in peep shows for five years and that I am planning to publish a book. I was accepted onto the course. Of course, I found work in a peep show and strip club. It was a new beginning.
By June, I was volunteering for the First Sex Workers Film Festival. There, I met Luca Darkholme, one of the organisers. This marks another important period in my life. I met new people involved in the sex workers movement and I didn’t feel alone anymore. I had a chance to share my views with colleagues and not with outsiders who may find it more difficult to understand my choices.
Since last October, I have been working closely with other sex worker activists like Thierry Schaffauser. At the moment we are organising amongst other things a campaign to stop the closure of 11 strip clubs in Tower Hamlet that will leave more than 600 woman without an income. Meeting Luca and Thierry has opened up my perspective on the sex worker movement. I have been introduced to more people. Through Luca, I performed at the Sex Workers Open University and I was introduced to X:talk, an organisation that offers English lessons to migrant sex workers. Suggested by them, I joined a union: the GMB Sex Workers Branch and at the first meeting I met Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes. I mentioned my photo book project and the pictures I took of Belgium’s Red Light District and she was very interested. Seven months have passed since that conversation and now I consider her a friend and a person that I admire. I feel I am not alone and that I belong to a movement and, yes, I am proud of it.
Niki´s proposal of the exhibition becomes a reality today with another very important event: the launch of an A-Z Guide to the laws for sex workers so we all can know better about our rights. This is a crucial project at this moment in time when it is very necessary that our voices are heard.
Vera also a wrote another piece that told the story of the background to 'Looking In, Looking Out'.....
LOOKING IN, LOOKING OUT
In 2008, I was working in a peep show in Antwerp. The business was very slow and one of the girls was complaining to the DJ that she was not getting many private shows. "Consider yourself lucky" he said. "You work 13 hours a day, dancing on a turning bed, and you get paid. The girls that are working in the windows have to pay between €100 and €150 a day to hire a window for eight hours. If they don’t get enough clients, they end up paying money out of their own pockets.”
Brothels are forbidden in Belgium and most of the owners of these windows are lawyers or businessmen. They take a big cut of girls’ money. They are the real "pimps". The laws generally are not fair to those of us who offer sexual services for money, or for anyone, who for one reason or another, decides to work in the adult industry. In many countries, the laws are changing, and not for the good. Criminalisation, stigma, isolation and lack of protection are just some of the problems that we face.
|I took this picture from another peep show, where I also worked but Police closed it down from one day to another. Winter 2008.-Vera. |
What's the story with the two on the street and note the girl with her back to them in the window - Chasmal.
I am very pleased to be exhibiting my pictures on the same day that the English Collective of Prostitutes is launching a guide “Know Your Rights an A-Z for Sex Workers”. I hope that those that attend today will get a more accurate and wider view of the sex industry and hopefully more people will join our fight. We are building a movement: to demonstrate, to socialize, to unionise, to demand our rights so we can press to change the laws and the perspectives of outsiders. People who decide to sell sex should be protected, not prosecuted and judged. We are workers and we want rights, not rescue.
|Some of the workers, in times of recession, have to pay from their pocket if they don't get enough clients during one shift - Vera. |
The man here wonders how much time he has. Is he the owner of the window? - Chasmal.
I am thrilled that Vera allowed me to feature her work and I hope that you like as much as I. Finally, I have my usual important statement to make. If prohibitionists such as Object get their way, work such as this may never be made and with one sweep of bigoted legislation and dishonest campaigning, a thousand stories never see the light of day and remain untold. This is the reason that we fight and will keep fighting until either we win or there are none of us left to fight for truth, choice and the right of self expression.