Lap dancer Cathy Keen
Lap dancer Cathy Keen

Photographer dispels stigma around sex workers with beautiful shots of them in the act

Julia Fullerton-Batten has captured sex workers mid-performance for her new book The Act 

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 28 March 2017 12:05
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Few industries are as controversial as the sex industry. And few workers are as judged, stigmatised and heaped with the pre-conceived notions of others as sex workers.

It was these ideas that lead London-based photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten to turn her lens to women who use their bodies to earn a living, in an attempt to understand what might lead a person to go into sex work by choice. The resulting photobook, called The Act, features escorts, pornstars, lap and pole-dancers, a stripper, a webcam girl, sex “slaves”, a dominatrix, a burlesque dancer; aerial artistes and a ping pong girl. Each is depicted on a stage to highlight how their work involves an element of performance.

“Curiosity was the main catalyst that inspired me to shoot The Ac’,” she tells The Independent. “I was curious as to what motivated women, some well-educated with university degrees, to forsake such normality and voluntarily enter the sex industry, thereby risking social stigma and the disapproval of their families.”

Fullerton-Batten, who has previously captured pre-pubescent and adolescent girls as well as women who have experienced unrequited love, planned to shoot 30 images for The Act. But becoming fascinated by her subjects, she expanded the scope to include video interviews to get to grips with their reasons for entering the industry and enable them to tell their own stories.

And despite their X-rated professions and the nude poses, Fullerton-Batten explains that she was careful to avoid the images turning into pornography.

“The subject matter involved is controversial. Nudity always causes tensions. The images were obviously going to be erotic," she says. "Eroticism is a subtle, sensitive and individual thing. Each viewer has their own consideration of what is acceptable or not. I can’t influence that. I set out to shoot erotic images and felt that by putting a female slant on the project I would avoid photographing pornographic scenes.

"All the scenes are single sex, and, except for two scenes involving pairings of female sex workers, the girls are solo. There is nudity but that is the state of undress in which my models perform their act," she argues.

Yet, despite Fullerton-Batten’s thoughtfulness and best intentions, sex work is far from black and white. How could be sure that the women had consented to their jobs?

To find women who were willing to pose for her and minimise the risk of photographing those who are sex workers again their will, Fullerton-Batten enlisted the help of an agency.

“Two criteria were important for the sourcing agency to find my models,” stresses the photographer. “The girls should voluntarily engage in the sex industry, and I should have a good cross-section of sex workers, including girls performing activities other than them physically engaging in sex acts.”

Fullerton-Batten was also acutely aware of being in a position of power as the one wielding the camera and ultimately deciding how they women were portrayed. This process shifted her view on the industry.

“During the shoot, I was a voyeur with a camera observing the actresses performing their act for me I was observing behaviour that I had never seen before. Strangely, I became quite protective towards them and could relate to their situation better,” she says.

“I even began to understand to some degree the reasoning behind their career choice. They were all positive, happy and content, almost care-free at what they were doing. I respect them more now than I did before the shoot as persons, not necessarily because they are sex workers. They did change my view of things, I like to think it’s been in a positive direction. I wish them all well, without exception. I’m still in contact with some of them.

While it took months for her to find her subjects, but the process of shooting the women, however, was fast and intense. “We were setting up lights and building sets for the next girl-shot while still shooting the current one,” recalls Fullerton-Batten.

However, the result was what the photographer regards as not only one of her most exhausting projects, but interesting, ambitious and rewarding.

“Even though I had a crew of 20 people, we always seemed to be short of people to do the work,” she says, looking back on the shoots. “We sometimes worked from 6am until 2am. My fond memory has to be of that team of people who assisted me stalwartly during those long, long days. The girls, too, were fabulous as their hours were frequently long, but I understand that many of them were used to that.”

But the memories of watching the women perform are what will linger forever, she adds.

“Prior to the shoot, I had only met and spoken to them but hadn't see them ‘dressed up’ or perform until on the day of their shoot," she recalls. "It was remarkable to see them perform their acts, especially Sasha Flexy on the pole, Monique do her lap dance routine, see Veronica hanging by her hair and Mouse firing out her table tennis balls.”

The Act by Julia Fullterton-Batten is out now

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