The photos in this article have been shared with us by The Exposure Project.
A group of sex workers in Toronto have decided to come together and take part in The Exposure Project, a photo exhibit designed to show people exactly what their lives look like, from the first-person perspective of the sex workers themselves. There are eleven artists total, and it’s an all-woman, trans-inclusive group.
Many of the women got involved with the project because they were sick of the myths and shit-talk surrounding their work—myths circulated by people who have no experience in the world they criticize regardless of their ignorance.
Janet is one of the artists whose work will be shown at the exhibit on May 31. She explained to me, over email, why she wanted to give people an inside look at her life by learning how to take a good photograph.
“What’s portrayed in movies is not the reality for most sex workers. Not everyone is down and out. Look at all the college students that work online—it’s sex work whether it’s on the street corner or in a dorm room. Not everyone is a drug addict.”
When most people picture sex workers, they picture those who operate on the streets, under cover of night, usually using drugs and in seedy areas. In reality, only about 20 per cent of sex work in Canada takes place on the street. It should be obvious that many others also live under that umbrella, including women who work in massage parlours, strip clubs, and via escort services, among other forms of sex work. Further, studies suggest most sex workers in North America are not illicit drug users. People get involved in the trade for their own reasons.
“[I want] people to see the community in a different way,” Janet says, “so they will be open minded and less judgmental of it.”
The Exposure Project was dreamed into existence by Carly Kalish, the clinical and program manager at All Saints Church-Community Centre. Kalish has worked with sex workers in West Africa and New York, and she’s worked with survivors of human trafficking as well. She designed the Exposure Project as a silent auction. The 33 photos will be auctioned off the night of the show, with all proceeds going back into funding creative initiatives for women at All Saints.
Each woman was given a digital camera with which to document her life. Some of the artists were clients of All Saints, and others heard about the project from those women and asked to be involved. There was no specific direction given to shape their work; Kalish wanted them all to feel free to explore whatever inspired them.
“Themes we talked about were things like ‘home.’ Some are quite literal shots of street-involved life, and others are abstract impressions of what they were feeling about something.”
“Instead of guiding them, we were open. I just said, “What do you want to teach people and educate them about? This whole project was born out of the women’s creativity.”
The event will be “like a party,” she says, with a full spread of hors d’oeuvres and drinks served all night. All of the women will be present, explaining their work and watching visitors take it in.
“The goal of the project is to create an outlet for women who have experienced sex work, formerly or currently, to share their stories,” she says. “But also to educate the greater community about life on the streets for women. And that includes trans women.”
The project operates not only as an opportunity for people to learn about life as a sex worker—it’s also a chance for the women to learn about themselves.
“It was a chance to do something I’ve never done,” Janet told me. “I knew nothing about photography and I was bored of sitting around at drop-ins. This was a chance to do something new and learn about photography.”
“I feel good about it, and I hope I have contributed to the group. I’m not used to working with a bunch of women. It’s a learning experience for me there.”
She says she plans to keep exploring life through photography after the project is done. She’s excited to take photos of her relatives when she visits them, and she’s going to show her photos to her family “to help them understand where I come from.”
Obtaining a better understanding of where she, and others in her industry, are coming from is clearly needed in this country. The eyes of the justice system are slowly being opened to the issues facing the sex work community. Sex workers themselves have already made huge strides in this area. Amy Lebovich, Terri-Jean Bedford, and Valerie Scott won their case in the Ontario Superior Court. The 2010 Himel decision struck down Canadian prostitution laws as unconstitutional because they actively prevented the women involved in sex work from protecting themselves. (Laws in question were in regards to living on the avails of prostitution, communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution, and keeping a brothel).
The decision was appealed, and the Ontario Court of Appeal then reinstated the communications law. What followed was a sexy tennis match of sorts, with the feds appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada to restore the other two laws. Bedford et al. then made the move to cross-appeal.
On June 13, the Supreme Court will hear the arguments in Attorney General of Canada v. Bedford, and the criminality of these activities will hopefully be abolished once and for all. Painstakingly slow progress is being made, but it’s progress nonetheless.
But that still hasn’t stopped much of the judgment amongst the wider populace. We still live in a world of slut-shaming, where women in sex work are at least partially blamed for any harm that befalls them, and the system still doesn’t do nearly enough to help. (Statistics Canada found that between 1991 and 2004, 171 female sex workers were murdered in this country. A whopping 45 per cent of those cases went unsolved. What if they had been lawyers instead of sex workers?) Tearing down that judgment factor is a major goal for Janet, and one of the primary reasons she decided to take part in The Exposure Project.
“It could be anybody. Don’t judge anybody. It could be your sister, mother, girlfriend, son. Some people choose to be in the industry. Some do it because of financial circumstances or sometimes by coercion.”
“I hope my photographs achieved the goal to educate the public on what’s going on in this community—visible and invisible.” The question of visibility came up with Kalish, as well. She told me it’s one of her goals to help educate people “about people who are deemed invisible in our city.”
“We really want to open up people’s eyes to the realities of this community, and what the streets of Toronto are really like.”
The results of the Exposure Project will be exhibited on Friday, May 31 at 7 p.m. at St. James Cathedral. Previously by Sarah Ratchford: