Nail polish and polaroids: Charlotte Schmitz collaborates with sex workers

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The photographer’s dazzling book of polaroids, made inside southern Ecuador’s largest brothel, “shows how the women want to be seen”

Located in the city of Machala, La Puente is southern Ecuador’s largest brothel. It has been operating as a family business for 45 years, employing 170 women who are paid $10 per client. Charlotte Schmitz, one of BJP’s Ones to Watch in 2019, first heard about the brothel while she was studying in Machala, aged 18. Returning a decade later as a photographer, Schmitz immersed herself into the brothel, befriending regulars and employees alike, and collaborating with the women to produce her first photobook, La Puente, a dazzling collection of polaroid photographs.

Schmitz gave the women full agency over their images: they posed how they wanted, and had the option to anonymise or embellish their images using nail polish: “A great material, to paint, to cover, to enhance.” These bright and colourful images are accompanied by Schmitz’ rather sobering diary entries. “The men at the urinal lean on the wall with their lower arms casually. One man pees freehand and looks at his mobile,” she writes.

Collaborative, inclusive, and impartial, La Puente is an antidote to both the stereotypical and sympathetic visual narratives that surround what is probably the most stigmatised line of work. In an interview with Schmitz, one of the women said, “The majority discriminate, women and men, there are only a few people, like you, who are interested. You came and saw us as women, as mothers, as sisters.” Her message to viewers is: “Learn more about what you are seeing here.”

In this Q&A, Schmitz discusses the process of collaboration, why nail polish was the perfect tool to both anonymise and enhance her subjects, and the importance of challenging perceptions.

© Charlotte Schmitz

Why was it important for you to challenge the way sex workers are portrayed? 

At the beginning, it was not my motive to challenge how sex workers are commonly portrayed. In the past few years I have adopted a participatory approach to my work, which naturally invites the people I photograph to create their own narratives. It creates space for a nuanced, human and relatable depth to individuals, and challenges stereotyping.

I’m interested in questioning how to minimise the unbalanced structure within the photographic process, so it was important for me to create work which shows how the women want to be seen, not how they are already seen. I’m tired of photography that objectifies sex workers and people in vulnerable situations, or which mistreat ethical guidelines in photojournalism; photographing minors without concealing their identity, for instance. There is often a power structure between the photographer and the people involved, and photographers often tell the story from their own perspective, but not their peoples’.

How did the women you met feel about their line of work, and how did they react to your images of them?

My work is about the beauty of the women working in La Puente, regardless of why they are there. Like anywhere else in the world, there is variety in how women feel as sex workers, as well as how they started out in what is perhaps the most stigmatised work. There are women who have been forced to do it by their boyfriends or husbands — many have liberated themselves later, some have not — and there are many women who do it voluntarily. But out of my experience, all the women I interviewed in La Puente started because of poor economic conditions. The majority of women are single mothers and have to work  to support their families. Personally, I think that if we can achieve economic gender equality, only the women who really want to would be sex workers.

© Charlotte Schmitz

“I want to explore the possibilities of participatory art, to push boundaries, challenge perceptions, and most importantly empower women”

© Charlotte Schmitz

Why are the women faceless?

Sex workers are stigmatized, so having the option to anonymize themselves was important. Many of their families and friends are not aware of what they do, where they work, or where they live. It can feel like a cruel act to erase one’s identity, but I can still see the women beneath it, and their intimacy with each other, and their humanity, and I believe others can too.

What was La Puente like? Your photographs make it seem like a bright and happy place, but your accompanying description makes it seem much more seedy. 

The place seems bright and beautiful because I focused on the women, but La Puente is not a beautiful place. It is a brothel, where women are standing at the door all day long, waiting for men to enter into their rooms. It is a place where they earn $10 per client. I am not interested in showing this part in my photography, this is the narrative we know already. It is one which has been over-saturated, and which was erased immediately after I started to collaborate with the women.

Could you talk a bit about your intentions behind the design of the book?

For me the book design and editing reflects the feeling of being in La Puente. Valentina Abenavoli designed the book in a way that revealed the surrealness of the place, and brought my notes and the photographs together. It’s the first time I’m publishing something I have written, and probably would not have had the confidence to use it this prominently, but I’m grateful and happy about it.

Turkish curator and writer Ilgın Deniz Akseloğlu edited my photos in a very sensitive way, channeling the focus onto the women. I made several hundreds of polaroids, and within that she found the very essence of the women and the place. I have been friends with Valentina and Ilgın a couple of years, and I feel that the book is a continuation of our conversations about womanhood and sexuality.

The cover was designed by João Linneu (co-founder of VOID) and in many ways, it reflects the content of the book. It is a hardcover, but. because of the foamy material beneath it, it feels very soft, and the carefully chosen white-gold metallic paper is very feminine. The title is in my own handwriting, connecting to the notes inside the book, which were originally handwritten in La Puente. The cover also invites for collaboration and interaction — the fingernails can be painted by the owner or by me.

© Charlotte Schmitz

“It can feel like a cruel act to erase one’s identity, but I can still see the women beneath it, and their intimacy with each other, and their humanity, and I believe others can too”

© Charlotte Schmitz

Why did you choose to use nailpolish?

It was an idea I came up with in La Puente with the women. I quickly realised the importance of providing anonymity and there was nail polish around, so we started using it. Magaly, a close friend from La Puente said, “While I was painting on my photo with nail polish, I was thinking about enhancing my beauty and covering my identity, and the rest there I left uncovered to be seen, because I’m always pretty, outside and inside.”

Much later I understood how well the nail polish and its symbolism for femininity worked with this project. I have been using nail polish ever since, even for the photos I take of myself. For me it is a great material, to paint, to cover, to enhance.

There are two important motifs: nail polish and urine. Together they provide a contrast that is reflective of your experience. The urine is masculine, and the nail polish is feminine. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree, and both have a strong smell too. While sitting in some parts of La Puente, there was a constant smell of ammonia and it’s invisible clouds. When I think about it now, the urine does represent men for me, naturally of course, they were the ones peeing. I was amazed on how little the men were ashamed while peeing in front of me and the other women. Maybe I gave it and them too much attention, because I was always writing my notes while sitting outside together with the men. I do prefer the smell and look of nail polish.

The book is just as much about your experience as it is about the women. Was it a reflective process for you?

With each encounter, I find myself more and more. This work was a huge reflective process for me. Spending a lot of time with the women, talking about sexuality, about being a woman, about intimacy, about fears, about existing structures, and ways out, was of course very empowering. I wished that I could have entered La Puente when I was 18 years old, when I first saw it from outside. Talking to Magaly and the other women back then would have had a big impact on me.

The work also assured me more in how I want to work as an artist. I want to explore the possibilities of participatory art, to push boundaries, challenge perceptions, and most importantly empower women. I can’t wait to go back to La Puente in a month, to show the women the book, and to start thinking with them about an exhibition in La Puente, and to continue our great conversations.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.