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The woman making sex work photography true to life

Whoretography is a DIY platform and publishing house that’s showcasing the power, art and politics of the movement

When Camille Melissa emigrated to the UK from Australia via Paris and entered the sex industry in 2005, she always knew that photography would play a crucial role as she navigated the complex structures – both visible and invisible – of this misrepresented community. Rhetoric surrounding sex work is often frustratingly one-dimensional in mainstream media; those who enter the industry are somehow ‘damaged’, labourers of the patriarchy, powerless individuals who need saving from themselves. Sex work activists continue to challenge the victim narrative forced upon them, across politics, film and art.

Camille is one such activist. She started her online platform Whoretography as a way of examining the intersection of images, technologies, society and the sex workers’ rights movement. As ‘a visual activist platform and a sex work positive publishing house’, Whoretography seeks to answer two fundamental questions: Is it possible to reclaim the word ‘whore’ through creative practice as research? What role does photography play in contemporary online sexual consumption?

“The easy availability of information on the internet has revolutionised the industry’s marketing techniques and its verbal and visual vocabulary,” Camille says, “Digital photographs are now fundamental to the transaction of sex. Photography needs to form a greater part of the sex work discussion; I have learned how negatively impactful photography can be in presenting sex workers as different from and less than other people.”

Camille started working as an escort with the UK company Northern Star, after leaving her birthplace of Australia. Since 2005, she has completely changed the way she approaches the industry. At first, Camille saw clients who conflicted with her values and posed the threat of violence, almost putting her off the profession while she tried to balance earning money through sex work with her photography Master’s degree and freelance gigs taking photos at weddings. Now, Camille sees 3-5 clients of her choosing a week, dictates her rates, and tends to see men she could imagine herself dating in ‘real life’. “It’s nothing more or less than a small business knowing it’s target market,” she tells me. Whoretography is also nearly a full-time venture.

Camille uses found imagery taken by, or of, sex workers throughout different generations as the starting point for Whoretography. She says the publishing world is awash with photo essays and books that offer the reader a voyeuristic ‘sneaky look’ inside brothels and the lives of sex workers, but she wants Whoretography to act as an antidote to using sex work imagery as ‘content’. “I am critical of sex work photobooks, and I want to call out photographers who take advantage of sex workers by paying them for visual content, and are then themselves celebrated in turn.”

Whoretography comprises a number of products under the umbrella of an online publishing platform: a-soon-to-be released book, zines and the recently launched Whoretography E–Magazine. Camille gathers scores of unconnected photographs to present an alternative history of sex workers’ lives, as well as coordinating interviews with internet-based sex workers and their customers in the UK, US and Australia. Her background in academia (she is undertaking a PhD in photography next year), and experiences of going from a full-service sex worker to choosing the clients and schedule that suit her, has allowed her to approach the creative platform from an ethnographic standpoint, as well as artistic.

“Whoever controls the image controls the message. We must celebrate the fact that sex workers are now image makers; we must challenge the exclusion of sex workers from online visual spaces” – Camille Melissa

Camille campaigns for sex workers to have a more authoritarian voice in how they are represented visually. “Whoever controls the image controls the message. We must celebrate the fact that sex workers are now image makers; we must challenge the exclusion of sex workers from online visual spaces.” Typical imagery of sex workers is limited, at best. In fact, just scroll through stock image websites and almost all the photographs tell the same story. A dark alley, a street walker leaning into the car, a ‘fallen’ woman robbed of agency, a distressed child, an unseen predatory male, a bad mother, a battered corpse. “A sense of desperation and the wafting smell of cocaine, heroin, lube and baby oil hangs heavy in cinematic tones,” as Camille describes it.

But this is just one narrative among thousands. There are, of course, terrible aspects to unregulated, and sometimes criminalised activities, and mainstream discourse has tended to favour this above all else. For Camille, however, sex work is an exchange of power, where she is the one who holds the cards. “There is no power imbalance in my sex work. Money is power, sex is power, the balance remains at equilibrium, I am merely exchanging power. If anything, it is me who occupies the position of power as I know which end of the supply and demand chain I sit on.”

While it is true that privilege, race and economic background play an important role in how sex workers navigate the industry, the “politics of pity” so present in normative culture helps no one. “Sex work imagery is war imagery,” Camille says, and our failure to recognise that sex work is, in fact, work, damages those within it. There has long been a schism between pro-sex, pro-sex work feminists and those who see the industry as a profession built upon satisfying the pleasures of patriarchy. Camille says it was the wedding industry, not the sex industry, that shook her feminist core though. And some of the worst reactions to Whoretography have been from ‘so-called feminists’.

“These so-called feminists take offence to my existence,” she explains, “I want to stop this over-simplification of the lives of cis and non-binary gendered sex workers, the sense that the only way of interpreting the lives of sex workers is to see them as ripe for ‘rescue’.” Playing on the word ‘whore’ in her platform’s title is also a way of reclaiming a slur solely used to insult a woman’s sexuality, as well as being a nod to sex workers’ activism on social media. “We’re disarming its power.”

“Within the global sex work community and the sex work research community the support is strong, there is certainly an interest in visual activism” – Camille Melissa

Whoretography continues to be a labour of love for Camille. Funding, like with any self-started art project, is an ongoing battle. Books, magazines and zines can be bought via the website, and Camille is currently crowdfunding on Gofundme and has reached £4,051 of her £10,000 goal. The subject matter has proven difficult to garner support generally, Camille says. “Within the global sex work community and the sex work research community the support is strong, there is certainly an interest in visual activism. But Whoretography does have its unique challenges with a wider audience.”

Although a thankless task at times, Camille plans on transforming Whoretography into an inclusive, counter-hegemonic discourse on the highs, lows, and everything in between, of sex workers’ lives. By presenting an alternative view of the sex industry through imagery, perhaps a more nuanced interpretation of sexual transactions and the agency of those within the sex industry will be made possible. ‘It’s just a matter of preserving and taking advantage of every opportunity afforded me to make Whoretography an issue for everyone, not just for sex workers and customers,’ Camille says. So watch this space.

Find out more about Whoretography here