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Lilla Szasz
© Lilla Szász: Mother Michael Goes to Heaven, part from series (2008-2010)

Intimate photos of a ‘family’ of sex workers in Budapest

Photographer Lilla Szasz spent years documenting three sex workers as they battled with love, heartbreak, addiction and, ultimately, loss

Lilla Szasz fell into the underworld when she began documenting teen girls living in a detention home in Budapest. Here, she met girls who had turned to sex work to survive. While they were locked up, pimps waited outside the gates for their release, with ample supplies of drugs to keep them caught in a cycle of addiction and debt.  

Their tragic stories spoke to Szasz. She yearned to know more about the people living on the edge, on the margins of society. In 2008, she travelled to downtown Budapest, where she met Monica and Michael, young sex workers who shared a flat. Their neighbours had been extorting them, threatening to call the police, so they moved to a larger place in the slums, where no one cared what they did.

At the age of 23, Monica left her home in the countryside, having been regularly abused by her alcoholic father. She met a man that she wanted to marry, discovered he visited sex workers, and broke up with him. To get revenge, she became a sex worker, and like her father, she began to drink. She met Michael, 31, who was already hustling, in a bar. She moved in with him, and together they were able to cover all orientations and needs of their clients. A drag queen named Alexander, 22, later joined them. The two men became a couple, highly volatile in nature, marked by physical abuse and mind games.

Their years together were filled with love and strife, by jealousies, betrayals, poverty, and fights. Yet they were a family, a deeply unhappy family, but bonded to each other all the same. Szasz’s photographs tell the story of three people trying to create a home, searching for love that they are unable to sustain or nourish. Trapped in a cycle of pain and addiction, they struggle to survive.

The toxicity of the environment eventually caused Szasz to end the project, which she titled “Mother Michael Goes to Heaven” – after Michael committed suicide in the flat in 2010. Like so many people who have never known a good family, these three found their way to each other and held on as long as they could. Szasz speaks with us about her experiences with people who were living on the edge, desperately trying to create a family yet unable to meet their own basic needs.

“Love is not enough. Love is just the first step” – Lilla Szasz

How did you meet Michael and Monica, and what was your relationship like?

Lilla Szasz: From 2003-2008, I photographed women living in shelter houses: elderly women, homeless mothers, and young girls who had become criminals. The last group brought the issue of prostitution to me. Girls between the ages of 12-18 lived in this detention home; some of them committed minor crimes like shoplifting, cheating, burglary, but many of them were prostitutes. Pimps were standing at the gates of the huge building waiting for the girls to exit the gates during their outings, and gave drugs to them. Soon the girls became addicted and ended up owing money to their pimps and had to pay off their debts.

These young girls’ tragic fate gave me the idea to photograph prostitutes. I wanted to know them, interview them, photograph them: I was interested in their past, present, and future. This is how I met Monica and Michael. They were the first ones I visited. I received their phone number from the head of a group for sex workers, after a half year of trying to convince her, that I will not abuse the rights of these people, she gave me their number.

I can still remember the day I visited them in their flat in the downtown of Budapest. I did not know how to behave, how to talk, what to say, to take out my camera or just to be and watch. I think I was scared of the situation and even the people. That was the first time in my life I had visited a brothel. Michael's relaxed attitude helped to make the situation less tense. Then gradually we got closer to each other

After our first meeting, we saw each other several times and regularly kept contact by phone. Then they disappeared and only appeared a year later. They started a new life – they said. They wanted to show their new flat to me – and this is how our story started. I visited them on a weekly basis, sometimes several times a week, for an hour or two each time. After a while, I wrote down things I heard or saw and asked them to replay those moments for the camera, or I had a picture in my head I wished to try out with them. Sometimes I was watching them and taking photos when I felt like and other times we just talked and didn’t take photos at all.

Please speak about your decision to use the first lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to frame this series of work: “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Lilla Szasz: I started the project in 2008. A year later, I re-read Anna Karenina and I realised the underlying focus of this project was the subject of family. I was interested in what family means, why people try so hard to create them, and why people seem to replicate their problems in them, rather than fix and transcend them.

What makes a family happy? Honestly, I have no idea. What I see are mostly families falling apart or people making an effort to understand and to communicate with the other. But fixing problems takes a very long time. Getting to know, understanding our motivations, acts and feelings are already more than enough for a lifetime… and then we have to be in the others’ shoes, to understand them too. Maybe this could help us to fix and transcend the problems. Love is not enough. Love is just the first step.

Why did you choose to become so deeply involved in such an unhealthy family?

Lilla Szasz: I have my own struggles and questions, and I try to understand my life through my subjects. Looking back, this project happened when I was struggling with the question of how to keep my relationship, how to take a step further and have a family.

Please tell us about the family you found.

Lilla Szasz: Michael was the mother; Monica, one of the children, was the worker; and Alexander was the enfant terrible.

Monica was the silent member of the family. Working hard and drinking hard made her extremely passive. It seemed as if life was passing her by, like one of the people beaten and defeated, who keep their feelings hidden from themselves. Monica had been a victim of violence for most of her life, so nothing shocked her. She was always numb – with and without alcohol.

Monica worked so the three of them could stay together. Here she felt safer than in any other place in the world. She thought she was in love with Michael, who was her pimp. She gave him all the money she made entertaining clients at the flat.

Like Monica, Michael also came from the countryside, but he grew up without a father. He started out as a prostitute and later became a pimp. He was religious, collected pictures of saints from the flea markets, filled the flat with crosses and paintings of Jesus. He always wanted to change, to live a “normal” life and to quit prostitution. He had hopes and wishes, and he used Monica and her dependencies to meet his needs. But ultimately, he was defeated by Alexander.

Alexander was raised in an orphanage, and after that, he became a hustler. He was never capable of love or intimacy. He was kind to me because I paid attention to him; as he was kind to anybody who did what he wanted. Alexander used Michael but never loved him. Michael was the chaser and Alexander always wanted to escape.

“I have my own struggles and questions, and I try to understand my life through my subjects” – Lilla Szasz

How do you think working as sex workers impacted their lives?

Lilla Szasz: They were deeply dependent on each other. They had huge debts to pay, whether it was the rent, the car loan, other loans, or just regular bills. Whenever they had money they went on spending sprees. It created a cycle of debt they could not escape.

Prostitution was just a “job.” Monica showed me her phone once. Her regular guests were saved in her phone as “Michaels”:

“Strangling Michael” – who strangled Monica with her own bra: this was how he could orgasm.

“Head Standing Michael” – who fucked Monica while she was standing on her head

“Small Dick Michael” – who gave Monica photocopied money. Monica nearly cried when she noticed the fake banknote.

“Flower Michael” – a nice old man who brought Monica flowers whenever he visited.

“Capital Red Letter Michael” – a rich diplomat who worked in the Ukraine and brought presents to Monica like a kimono, a perfume, and a pair of earrings.

Alexander only mentioned one case when he had to drink beer and pee in the client’s mouth. He looked at me sadly and said, “You can not imagine, Lilly, how sick people are that you can meet in this industry. Sometimes I have no erection and the client wants the money back. I give half of the money back, I never give back the full amount. Of course, Viagra can help but not always.”

Michael eventually quit prostitution and became their pimp. Of the three, he was the one most capable of feeling. Maybe that was the reason why he could not cope with Alexander remaining a prostitute. Sometimes he entered the room while Alexander was working, made a scandal, and kicked out the client from the flat. He couldn’t stand seeing Alexander making love with others; he couldn’t stand the feeling that Alexander could have an orgasm with others. “God, give him Aids!” he often screamed. But they needed the money and they couldn’t stop.

Addiction also created a cycle that kept them spiraling down. What did you observe about how it changed their lives over the years?

Lilla Szasz: Monica came from a very poor family, where drinking was not a rare thing: her grandmother was a drinker, her aunt too, and her father drank himself to death when she was an adolescent. She used this tool to fade reality away. She was walking in a dream world without dreams or hopes. When she drank she was not happy or sad: she was stoned without thoughts.

Michael had dreams, thoughts, feelings, sadness, and happiness – and thus he felt his depression more. For that, he took drugs: tranquilisers, sleeping pills, weed, and cocaine, when they had money.

Alexander was a party drug user and drinker. He was young enough not to get addicted to substances and felt like he had the power to do anything without consequences. But I also think that he had to take pills or be drunk when he received many clients to cope with this difficulty sometimes.

This kind of extreme living can sometimes be a search for self, a way to test the limits and see how far one can go. What do you think they were searching for? What about yourself?

Lilla Szasz: They were striving to survive: their fate, their feelings, and their evils – but there was no way out. There are very few for whom there is.

I was searching for answers to my questions about family. I still haven’t found the answers but the project changed my attitude towards photography. I was documenting their lives, noting down their lives as part of their diary. They were photographing me, as part of our common reality, staged and made up by the four of us. We were creating our own reality in the pictures.

“His death became the answer and the relief from everything” – Lilla Szasz

I get the sense you felt at home with this family. What was this “home” like?

Lilla Szasz: There were two big rooms: one served as the bedroom, where they worked, and the other as the living room. Both rooms were packed with things: a huge mirror door wardrobe, a huge leather sofa, a huge bed, all decorated with gold, but everything was dark. Two small dogs and a beautiful cat were running around all the time. The dogs were not walked and sometimes dog shit was on the floor. Smoke and lack of air were kind of permanent.

They almost never left home, as they were afraid of missing every client that would have wished to come when they were out. Home is at the heart of the work. Home is where Alexander and Michael first met – and where Michael killed himself on 24 February, 2010.  

Michael committing suicide in the flat destroyed not only himself but the family as well.

Lilla Szasz: It seems very logical to me now. Michael carefully planned his act. Nobody or nothing could bring him back from that decision. His death became the answer and the relief from everything – and perhaps for him it was.  

The question that I asked after the death of Michael was: “Could it happen to anybody?” And I realised that similar situations were and have been in the lives of me and my friends.