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Jane Hilton's American archives Dazed States of Independence
Mariah, age 26, from Kansas. Love Ranch South. "I've been in the business two and a half years, in order to pay for a house. No boyfriend, no complications."Photography Jane Hilton, taken from Precious

Inside Nevada's secret brothels

Jane Hilton talks American ideology and shooting the world's most misunderstood professionals

After a youth spent watching Westerns, imported across the Atlantic from Hollywood studios to the English suburbs, Jane Hilton developed a fascination with the visual and ideological landscape of America. Following on from a project photographing the country's remaining cowboys, her latest book Precious gives a rare look inside its brothels, exiled by law to secretive, ranch style locales in the deserts of Nevada. A series of striking, mostly nude portraits of the women that live and work there, Hilton’s images are a non-judgemental look at one of the world’s most misunderstood professions – “I love these women and respect every one of them,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “To me, they are precious.”

When did your fascination with America start?

Jane Hilton: I visited in 1988 for the first time on a fashion shoot. I was there for three weeks, in Tuscon, Arizona, and it just blew my mind. Initially it was because of the space and the landscapes – you could see 180 degree vistas of desert and mountains which you just don’t get in England – but then I started to meet characters in the town. One man, Walter Swan was his name, had a bookshop called the One Book Bookstore. He was in his seventies, a real cowboy. He was a magical person that I spent some time with, and I took his picture. I was just hooked from then on.

So from that moment did you think, “this is somewhere I have to come back and start photographing?”

JH: No, no I didn’t. I was just blown away by the experience. I was an assistant at the time, so I was working hard and just soaking it all up. It was later on I realised that it had really struck a chord with me, so I went back and started doing projects in the early 90s. The first project that I seriously got into was doing weddings and wedding culture in Las Vegas, that kind of McDonald's style wedding. I did that from ‘91 until 2000. 

How does being a European or being English impact your work in America?

JH: I think you take a European point of view with you, and that’s why America for me has the wow factor. Growing up In the UK, we were saturated with everything American, so I was brought up on watching Westerns and Hollywood. And it was amazing, because people didn’t travel as much then. Being European means that America and the American Dream – which is really what I'm really about – is so intriguing. All the subject matter that I come across normally fits into ideas of the Dream – that in the States you can have it all, and you can do what you want, where you want. Which is shockingly different to how we’re brought up in England.

Do you think the American Dream still exists?

JH: I think people cling on to the American Dream because it’s an inherent part of their culture. Without it, I don’t think that they can exist. They don’t have the same kind of history as Europe, because America’s history – the West and the Native Americans – is totally buried, swept under a rather large carpet. I read a book once where people discovered these ruins and thought they’d found a city underground in California. They got really excited, thinking that finally America had some archaeological kudos. But of course it was a Cecil B. DeMille film set – that basically sums it up. I do think that the typical “go for it” attitude has got positive sides to it, and I suppose that’s why Europeans, especially in the 60s and 70s, were aspirational to all things American: we wanted it bigger and better and we wanted it like them. Of course now, as it’s all deteriorating underneath the façade, you can see that in actual fact, it’s not great.

You released Precious in 2013, how did you first become interested in Nevada’s brothels?

JH: I lived in Vegas for a while, which always fascinates me for the things that we’ve just been talking about – it’s the biggest paradox known to man that that city exists in the first place. I’d been doing the weddings for several years by 1998, but I wanted to go on a new track. I took a road trip towards Reno, and on the way there were some very funny looking signs – ‘Shady Ladies – twenty miles north’ and ‘Madam Kitty’s Cathouse’. As a photographer, you’re always, always curious, so I drove and turned up to discover that it was a brothel. Weirdly, at the one that I went to – Madam Kitty’s – the woman that came to the door was from Manchester, and she was so relieved to see another face from England that she wanted to chat. I met some of the girls, and she wasn’t sure that I’d be allowed to take their pictures, but they were quite keen.

So I holed up in this great big casino on Lake Tahoe which Frank Sinatra used to own, and waited for three days for the owner to deicide whether he would allow me back, and in the end he said yes. I took photographs, and I did some filming, and took it back to the UK. The filming was quite revelationary, because the women were so upbeat and so funny, and the madam from Manchester, Jan, was hilarious. In the end I got a commission from the BBC to go back, and they persuaded me to do ten documentary films, so that took me two and a half years, three years, but it was an amazing experience. The book that I did recently was because – I don’t know why – but I felt it was unfinished business. The women were brilliant on film, but somehow I wanted to iconise them. Even though it’s totally legal, people have issues with what they do, so I wanted to show them as real women.

Do you think that as a woman yourself, you connected with the women in a way that allowed you to take such honest portraits of them?

JH: I think I’m quite honest myself, and I think that instinctively they picked it up. I also think being female got through most of those barriers. I gave them a lot of time, and I talked to them a lot, and won their trust. Sometimes I work with an assistant, but for that project there was no way I was taking one, even if it was a girl. I knew that I’d have better results on my own.

How did you decide which brothels to shoot, and how has the atmosphere changed from before?

JH: When I went back to do Precious I photographed in eleven different brothels, and I deliberately picked them so that some might just have one lady working and others would have 25 on their books that would all line up. I did them in different parts to see how the physiology panned out. So up north, that’s why the CB radio shot is there, because they don’t get much business apart from trucks that go past, and they’re in the middle of nowhere, so the girls get on the radio and try and entice truckers to stop. The kitsch interiors are almost all gone, and that was another reason why when I photographed the women in their rooms where they work – sometimes we would choose a room that was interesting because I don’t think they’re going to exist for much longer. The new brothels are all being refurbished, so the trailer feel has gone, and now they look like Best Westerns. For me, that wrecks it, because if you’re going to go to a brothel and have a fantasy with a woman, you don’t really want a lacy four poster bed in a chintzy pale pink and white room.

Do you think the refurbishment is because business is dwindling with the economy so they need to reinvigorate it?

JH: Yeah, I think they’re trying to make it look more professional and more acceptable. But I think they’re missing a trick really, because I think people like the seediness of it. It’s lost the atmosphere, which is half of the excitement.

Did you have concerns over taking portraits that didn’t contain elements of eroticism, that instead portray these women as women, rather than simply as...

JH: ...sexual objects? Yes, what I wanted to say was something different. I wanted you to be able to look at the photograph and not necessarily know their line of work. When I started photographing them, I did it with their clothes on, but that kind of gave it all away – they’d have these ‘ho shoes’ on as the call them, and you know, funny little tiger print bustiers. I felt that nude portraits were a truer, and more honest way of seeing the real person.

There are interviews with the women in the back of the book, why was it important for you to allow them space to represent themselves alongside your portrayal of them?

JH: Because some of their stories are so amazing. You think you’ve heard it all and then you meet another girl, and you go “oh my god.” Obviously there’s a lot of angst and pain and dysfunctional childhoods, the things that you might expect. But no matter what anyone says, these women feel that by working it makes them financially independent, and most of their problems are linked to the fact that they’re stuck in a hole and they can’t get out because they’ve got no money. But through this they can move themselves into a better place. Also what you don’t expect is that most of them really enjoy their jobs.

Sex work is often incredibly stigmatised, but that judgement occurs without speaking to people that work in it.

JH: This is the problem! That’s one of the reasons I did the book. People have an idea about something that they have no experience of, and they make a swift judgement. So Precious is non-judgemental. And with most of those women, intercourse probably happens 30% of the time. The rest is all massaging men’s egos and making them feel more relaxed, giving them attention and counselling people and talking to them. There’s so much more to it and people don’t really realise, and some of the women are quite amazing. 

“No matter what anyone says, these women feel that by working it makes them financially independent...through this they can move themselves into a better place. Also what you don’t expect is that most of them really enjoy their jobs.” – Jane Hilton

There’s one woman who says that as a child she found her mother's body after she had been murdered, and that when she leaves the brothel she wants to create a halfway house for homeless people so that she can give something back to the world. Her story blew me away, it was incredibly moving.

JH: Yes, Cassidy. When she told me that, I was blown away too, and I couldn’t believe what she was saying. She was really well mannered, well brought up, beautiful, gentle. And when she told me that I just looked at her and thought, “I can’t believe it.” She’s at a point where she forgives the man who murdered her mother. That one in particular blew my mind. 

Did you ever find it difficult to juggle your own subjectivity whilst trying to show these women’s agency? 

JH: To go back to Walter Swan, he once told me that when you photograph someone, they think that you take a little part of them away with you. But when they meet you, they take a little part of you away with them. I think that is how the relationship worked between the women and me. They didn’t understand what I was doing at first, I had to say no, I don’t need a pornographic pose, I’m only interested in you as a person. I’m not interested in what you think you represent or your job. I’m interested in you. Photographing them on a plate camera is a slow process, which gave me the time to have that relationship with them. But what Walter said is true. You take away a part of them but they actually take away a part of you.

Finally, what draws you back to America?

JH: Oh God! It’s going to be a lifetime’s work. And I wish it wasn’t but I have to say, there’s so much to photograph there. America is extraordinary in the most ordinary ways. I’d love to get out of the States, actually, but I don’t think I’m going to. It’s just full of subject matter. You could never get bored of it.