When photographer Ivar Wigan set about documenting the stripping scene in Jamaica, he didn’t want to take stereotypical, voyeuristic images that objectified women and did little else.
Besides, his project - titled ‘Young Love’ which captures the overlapping stripping and dancehall scenes on the Caribbean island - happened more naturally than most. The majority of the people featured in the photos are good friends of his that he met as he settled on the island.
“I have a long relationship with the country,” Wigan, who was born in Scotland but has been moving around Jamaica for two years, tells The Independent. “I’m making photos no matter where I am so it came about in a very organic way. Jamaican street and Dancehall cultures house a potent melting pot of transient ideas. I love young cultures in a state of transition. They excite me.”
“In the ghetto communities sexuality is not a taboo topic,” he continues. “It's referenced constantly. Sexualised dance is a large part of the youth culture, hence the music is ‘Dance’ Hall. There are ‘Dancehall Queen’ competitions where girls compete for money with exaggerated love making moves. Most Dancehall parties will have ‘modellers’ dancing. These are local girls who are let in free if they wear bikini.
“With the dance being so explicit it’s a fine line between who’s a stripper and who’s not," he adds. "I’ve been to parties recently where girls either come topless or in see-through mesh tops, so the jump from just attending parties for fun and or paid to do so is very small.
“There are strip clubs in every Jamaican town, and within the Dancehall music and entertainment scenes this is certainly an accepted and an environment within which to congregate and socialise."
It was this vibrant scene that Wigan turned his lens too. He chose not to capture the “upscale clubs with foreign dancers that cater to business people and travellers,” he adds. “These don’t really interest me and I have never been. I spend my time with my friends in downtown areas because it is the local Dancehall scene which brought me here.”
The responses to his project, showing people off-guard and relaxing in their homes and with friends, have been positive, he says.
“I show people here the images everyday and they love them. No one I’ve photographed has been ‘published’ before, so everyone is excited. It's very difficult for most Jamaicans to get a visa and many never get a chance to travel. Pictures have a life which extends beyond physical constraints so this series gives an enduring presence to many who otherwise might never be introduced to the world,” he says.
But despite his best intentions, being a sex worker in Jamaica can be tough. The Jamaica Sex Worker Coalition advocay group is currently fighting many battles, including for the industry to be decriminalised; to tackle sex trafficking and violence from clients and the police; and fighting against social and economic exclusion. And while stripping is “entirely normal” in the confines of the Dancehall urban youth movement, it is “not at all accepted” by wider society.
“Jamaican middle class society is very tradition based and has a large Christian faith element," says Wigan. "There are more churches per square mile here than any other country in the world,” he says, suggesting that that cohort is not so open to sex work.
And even if he doesn't see stripping as immoral, did he not ever feel like the women he was capturing were exploited or coerced into stripping?
“Not at all,” stresses Wigan, whose previous project The Gods captured the stripping scene in Southern America. “I’ve worked with dancers in the USA and Jamaica on my last two projects and met hundreds of strippers. I never met anyone yet who said they felt forced to do it. Many of them enjoy it and find it empowering, some don’t and would rather probably be at home watching television.
"But," he adds, "all of the girls I met have done it by choice.”
Ivar Wigan's work will be showing at Photo London, Somerset House, which opens on 18 May
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