For the past five years, Ulla Deventer has been working on a project about women and prostitution in Europe – specifically in Brussels, Athens and Paris – but also, more recently, in Ghana. Several of the women she met in the project’s early days were from West Africa, and Deventer developed close friendships with some of her subjects, who inspired her to travel to their home countries to experience first-hand what life is like for women living there.
In May 2017, Deventer, who was born in Henstedt-Ulzburg in north Germany and is now based in Hamburg, spent six weeks in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where she focused her attention on the living conditions of the city’s youth, particularly its female sex workers. She recently returned to the country to continue to work on Butterflies Are a Sign of a Good Thing – an extension of her original project.
“My intention is to get long-term insight into the economic hardship that often brings women to prostitution in order to observe and understand their backgrounds and dreams,” she explains. “I hope to make my audience feel the empathy I share with these women and to experience a personal and subjective take on this topic – to rethink clichés.”
Through a series of portraits, environmental pictures, and still-life images, as well as drawings by some of the people she met, Deventer tells a story of the difficult realities that women in Accra face – from a lack of access to education, to financial troubles, strained family relationships and limited opportunities. People live from hand to mouth, she says, and are too busy trying to survive to pursue their dreams.
“One of the big differences between Ghana and Europe is that there is no social system to support these women in any way,” says Deventer. “People can very easily end up on the streets or become victims of crime. There is a lot of corruption and the police seem to work against them rather than provide protection.”
Already this year she has been shortlisted for a number of awards, including the Contemporary African Photography Prize (featured in BJP in March). She is also the winner of the 2018 Organ Vida International Photography Festival Solo Exhibition within the PHmuseum Women Photographers’ Grant. Jeanne Mercier, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Afrique in visu, who nominated Deventer after discovering her work last February during the CAP Prize judging, says, “At a glance, her surrealist and childish universe, at the limit of pop culture, challenged me.
“It is also this choice not to treat the subject of sex workers in a documentary way and to choose to stage it, which I find very strong. She proposed a completely different representation, another imaginary [world] far from the usual clichés on prostitution. Finally, the words she chose are key to reading the project. The title Butterflies Are a Sign of a Good Thing and the texts that accompany this work are poetic touches because, as Deventer explains, ‘All my images are created on words that people tell me’.”
The project is not just about highlighting the problems, says Deventer; it is important to reflect the subjects’ aspirations too. “The work is not about prostitution – it’s about the women’s dreams, their lives, and their personal stories, of which prostitution is just one aspect,” says Deventer.
“I’ve tried to get involved with local feminist activists because the more I get to know the culture, the more I question my position as a privileged woman, and if what I’m doing is right. I always make sure the women understand it’s a project for them or with them – I really see it as a collaboration.”