Julia Fullerton-Batten has often trained her camera on women. Her first series was a semi-autobiographical look at the transition from adolescence to womanhood; Unadorned looked at the concept of beauty; Korea at traditionally dressed women in ultra modern cities. Now, “after a year’s preparation”, she has completed The Act, a study of women who voluntarily undertake sex work in the UK.
The project stems from a personal curiosity about what drives these women, some of whom are university educated but risk social stigma and family disapproval to pursue their chosen career. “Although the subject matter was clear in my mind from the outset, having little knowledge of the sex industry I wasn’t at all sure how to go about the project, how to find models, what settings and how to shoot the scenes,” says Fullerton-Batten.
She enlisted a casting agent to help and found nearly 100 women prepared to get involved. “A self-professed sex worker defines her profession as consensual and breaks it down into two categories: sex work where direct contact is involved in a private setting, and adult entertainment where they are not in direct contact with clients,” she says.
She picked out a handful of women who represented a broad cross-section of work – including escorts and porn actresses; lap- and pole-dancers; a stripper; a webcam girl; slaves and dominatrix; a burlesque dancer; aerial artists and a ping pong girl – and interviewed them one by one, filming their testimonies.
“Listening to them, it became increasingly apparent that they spend both their business and personal lives as if on a stage, so that’s what I decided to do – put each of them in their own staged setting,” she says.
“I found a studio that not only had the required ceiling height for aerial artistes to suspend themselves by their hair three metres above ground, but also had black painted walls which, with my lighting, really enhanced the overall effect that the girls were performing their ‘act’ on their own individual stage of life.”
She’s published the project as a large pink-bound book, which includes photographs but also transcripts of some of the interviews. Leafing through it, we come across the story of Ella and Chloe – two girls of twenty who have chosen to live in slavery. Their dominatrix controls every aspect of their lives, including when, where and what to eat, and when, and where they sleep. She also looks after their money, even taking their earnings from working in porn.
It’s extreme, but Fullerton-Batten says that working on the project helped her dispel some of her own prejudices. “Regardless of the extremeness of their ‘profession’, they are still women like any other,” she says. “They have for the time being, and for their own personal reasons, chosen a different route through life.
“They were all positive, happy and content, almost care-free about what they were doing. I began to understand and respect to some degree the reasoning behind their career choice.”
She’s also included a DVD of the videos at the back of the book, including one showing Sasha Flexy telling her story. Originally from The Ukraine, she taught herself how to pole dance by videoing her own moves, and says she didn’t want to train as an athlete because it would make her into a bit of a man.
“I think in this day and age we see sex like something you can just buy in a supermarket,” she comments. “Sex is easy to get, but love is much harder to find.”