What better role can photography play than that of the compassionate voyeur—allowing us to step out of our own limited lives and, at least for a moment, and pull us into someone else’s very different existence? The possibility of stimulating our understanding and compassion for another human’s condition, pushing the boundaries of our own contained world—this is ones of the most valuable roles that photography can fulfil.
This is the gift of James Whitlow Delano’s series, Selling Spring. Delano, an award-winning international documentary photographer based in Tokyo, has travelled to over a dozen countries photographing sex workers. From Tijuana to Guatemala City to Cambodia and Tokyo, he has worked on the edge, putting himself in the often-risky situation of photographing red light districts at the margins of society. The result is a visual monograph of women on the street, a 120-photo series that is rare in its cultural and geographical breadth.
Because Delano has put in the years and energy required to photograph street workers across the globe, this series hits you anew with just how completely prostitution is a universal phenomenon. It is no surprise that “the oldest profession” reaches far beyond all borders; but to see it in Delano’s images so literally in black and white is a potent reminder that women of all cultures and countries have been doing this for centuries—that is the way it has always been.
From Picasso’s Mademoiselles de Avignon to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, prostitution has forever been documented in the news, art, and film. Like the best of these representations, Selling Spring peels away the stereotypes and objectification of the sex worker to reveal something deeper. When we see one of his subjects, we don’t see just a stranger, but a reminder of the common human struggle to survive. Delano says, “What interests me is the woman behind this persona created for men’s sexual appetite. She is someone’s sister, daughter, maybe someone’s mother.”
Consider two of the subjects whose portraits appear repeatedly in the series: Juliette, a Haitian working on Rue St. Denis in Paris, and Angelica, a Nicaraguan working in Guatemala City. They do not speak the same language and work half way around the world from each other. But these two women, like many in Delano’s photographs, are single moms working to support their children. Juliette’s marriage to an American man in Miami fell apart and left her without financial recourse. Angelica takes clients to her hotel room, walking past her son watching television upstairs. Delano was allowed to spend time with them and got a glimpse into their lives. His images convey a sympathetic message: They are doing the best they can.
About half of the photos in this series are quick and candid street shots, and the other half are portraits in which Delano photographed the women in the rooms where they work. The two different styles of images are a powerful complement to each other, adding to the sense of seeing both the inner and outer worlds of the women. The candids reveal what it might be like to seek out these women on the street where they, in a variety of manners both open and covert, offer their services, while the portraits personalise and take us inward.
One of Delano’s strengths is that he moves nimbly and gracefully in the worlds he photographs, altering them as little as possible with his presence. Photographing sex workers is a delicate endeavour; not only must Delano have the confidence and calm required to snap a photo in culturally sensitive moments, but he must have the quiet respect needed for people to let you into their worlds, disrupting them as little as possible when lifting his camera.
“…Moving quietly and working quickly, this may not have always applied to the actual portrait, which may have been a session with a woman for an extended period of time, but it definitely applied to how I would arrive unannounced, photograph and leave quietly when finished,” Delano explains. “I needed to enter their world, unchanged, no show for the lens. To represent some truth about their world and the way that they hang onto the frayed threads of their dignity, I knew I would have to attract as little attention as was possible.”
The photos in Selling Spring are energised by the tension and truth of the moment, and become even more so when considering the risk involved in taking them. The threat of suspicious pimps, crime, and the police in these red light districts is no small factor. But Delano is familiar with danger; he has photographed in areas of civil conflict—Yemen, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the southern Philippines, amongst others. Working in these places, he, in his words, began “banging up against barriers to break through them.”
When Delano started this project, he was coping with his sister’s dying, a time when he welcomed taking risks. He explains, “My only sister was ending her days in a brief battle with renal cancer that had struck out of the blue and she was being treated at a hospice in San Diego. So, I guess I was agitated and felt that taking chances might numb the pain a little of her tragedy. I had encountered “Paraditas” doing a story along the Mexican border the year before and thought it was time to push through another barrier. There was an area, Zona Norte, just across the border in Tijuana, Mexico where prostitution was tolerated. Women largely worked autonomously on the street. Police were everywhere arresting men. It was more tense, frankly, than Kabul, but I was, and still am, fascinated by this sub-culture.”
While Delano may have been comfortable with inviting personal risk into his work, he took care to minimise the risk to the subjects he photographed. Although Delano is alone in a room with many of the women, he never touches them, and respects their need for privacy, to keep what for many of them is a secret profession, a secret. Delano described the experience of working with Juliette: “She and I walked a block and a half to a little hotel where she worked and I got a chance to get a feel for her temperament, which was something I would describe as calm intelligence. She slipped money through a window to a North African man in the stairway of the hotel and again, half a world away; we entered a room that was dimly lit by bare light bulbs. At one point Juliette said to me, ‘Please do not ruin my life (by photographing her face).’ I told her that was the last thing I would ever want to do and explained that I only wanted to photograph her and learn about her. She was magnificent to photograph. I told her this. Of all the women I photographed, Juliette seemed most likely to emerge from that business.”
Beneath his lens, the women are freed from the gaze by which they are usually seen—sexual objects to be used and discarded. His images dig deeper into who they are. When possible, he has heard their stories; he has given them the dignity that most people crave—to be heard.
Delano does not view this series as being in any way a comprehensive study of street prostitution—it does not try to explain the sociological or political reasons behind the phenomenon, nor does Delano suggest that his photos explain the lives of the women. “This is not as much a documentary project as a silent movie,” he says. “It is a drama play without dialogue. It is intended to raise more questions than deliver answers. Most people engaged in such work are not going to open up. Life can be that way. It can be exceedingly unfair but still there is a distinctive grace to these women.”
Text By Clayton Maxwell
©picture James Whitlow Delano