Based on photographer Marc Vallée’s cult zine, Documenting Thierry is the exhibition sharing portraits of sex worker and activist Thierry Schaffauser
Marc Vallée’s 2017 cult zine Documenting Thierry captured fleeting moments in the everyday life of charismatic male sex worker and political activist Thierry Schaffauser. Composed of candid black and white portraits, the zine revealed Schaffauser’s intimate rituals of shaving and dressing, and photos of him engaged in animated conversations with the photographer alongside more contemplative moments. The pictures, which were all taken between 2010 and 2012, are accompanied by a text in which Schaffauser shares his views on reforming sex worker rights.
In a conversation over email, the photographer recalls the period of time when he shot the zine: “I would spend time with Thierry at his home in east London, drinking tea and talking about life, work, and politics as I was taking pictures,” he tells us. “I come from a leftist tradition and Thierry is more of an anarchist. When working like this, the hope is that the person forgets the camera.”
Vallée describes his initial meeting with Schaffauser, who ignited his curiosity at first sight: “I first saw him at a queer protest in London that I was documenting in 2008. He had a ‘This Is What A Sex Worker Looks Like’ t-shirt on and I took a picture of him,” recalls Vallée. “Two years later, I saw him again at a sex workers’ protest in Soho and got chatting with him. After reading his comment pieces in The Guardian, I thought a project based on him and the social, economic, and political issues that sex workers face would be worth exploring.”
While it’s held in the collections of Tate Britain, Martin Parr Foundation, and Maison Européenne de la Photographie, editions of the zine are rare. But Vallée’s upcoming exhibition Documenting Thierry (at Retramp Gallery in Berlin) transforms the exhibition space into this out-of-print collectable zine and features 30 large DIY photocopy paper prints alongside a video installation of Schaffauser talking about his life, work, and politics.
“Ok, so, my name is Thierry Schaffauser, I’m a sex worker, or a whore if you want. I’m queer, I’m a drug user, I’m a migrant, and recently I’ve read something about sexual addiction so maybe I will claim that as well,” he introduces himself in one of zine’s accompanying texts. “I’m very involved with sex worker activism, queer activism, things like that.”
“I think work is exploitation whether it’s in the sex industry or any industry” – Thierry Schaffauser
While pondering the exclusion and erasure of sex workers from the labour movement and the feminist movement, he pivots to questioning the validity of the very concept of work: “What do we campaign for? Basically the decriminalisation of the whole sex industry: sex workers, clients, third parties, families, partners etc. Anything that empowers minorities and the working class because I think many people don’t necessarily love their job. I think work is exploitation whether it’s in the sex industry or any industry. Ideally, we should be free not to have to work as well. I think maybe I develop these kinds of anarchist ideas now to try to question any kind of power, a system without power maybe would be good.”
Documenting Thierry perfectly distils some of the recurring ideas that permeate Vallée’s work – outliers, rebels, liminal spaces, and defying normative expectations. It’s a story about the socio-economic plight of sex workers, disenfranchisement, and minorities, as told through the story of an individual attempting to assert himself in a society that deems some bodies and desires more valuable than others. “Over the last twenty-plus years, I’ve documented people who in some way disrupt the neoliberal city. My subjects tend to be young, male social transgressors – graffiti writers, skaters, punks and in this case a sex worker,” he explains. “I’m interested in how they disrupt the capitalist system while in pursuit of their own desires and identities.”
Take a look through the gallery above for a selection of the artworks featured in Documenting Thierry.
Marc Vallée’s Documenting Thierry is showing at Berlin’s Retramp Gallery from July 21 until July 24 2002