“Nothing is ever what it seems”

Alicia Vera met Eden while working on a project about strippers in San Francisco. Eden, who was 18 at the time, moved to the Bay Area to work as an exotic dancer. Soon after, Eden began working as a prostitute.  On a business trip to the east coast, Eden was caught by an undercover cop and faced the possibility of jail time.  Vera’s story followed Eden’s struggle to reconnect with her mother, find her identity and escape incarceration.

Vera talked with Columbia Visuals about the difficulties of finding access and building trust.

CV: When you first started shooting Eden, did you know what kind of story you wanted to tell?

AV: I knew I wanted to tell a story of a young woman struggling to find herself while working her way through the sex industry. But it wasn’t until I completed the essay that I realized that I had a much bigger story at hand.

CV: What was your process of photographing Eden? Were you a fly on the wall? An active participant? And how did that affect the end product?

AV: I was a bit of both; it really depended on the situation. Being friends, it was difficult to completely be an observer. We spent a lot of time catching up and I also got to ask her several questions about her work and life in general. But once we got most of the talking out of the way, and were in the hotel room where she was working out of, I made sure to step back and give her space. This fly on the wall approach led me to shoot some of the more intimate moments.

 CV: You said in a past interview that building trust and relationships is important to taking good pictures.  How did you develop that bond with Eden?

AV: It took several years to build that bond with Eden. When I met her while shooting a project on exotic dancers in San Francisco, California, I considered her more than just a subject whom I was photographing. From the beginning we had clicked, and began to spend time outside of the strip club. She met my friends, family, and in return she introduced me to hers.

CV: How did access play into what images and scenes you could capture?

AV: Eden had basically given me free reign to shoot whatever I felt necessary. She had seen my work develop throughout the years and trusted my vision. The biggest challenge I faced was getting access to one of her clients but after several attempts, we were finally able to convince one of them.

CV: There is an image where Eden is in bed with a customer. Can you speak about that scene? How did you get access? How did you feel shooting that?

AV: Eden talked to several of her clients about the project but had been turned down numerous times. We finally got lucky with one of her regulars, who was intrigued by the story and agreed to meet me. I was called into the hotel room and I explained to him what our goals for the project were. I told him that his face would not be shown in the pictures and that he was free to delete any one that gave away his identity.  He was immediately comforted and agreed.

I was relieved once I saw that the process itself was routine almost robotic, like a barista going through the motions of making a cup of coffee. Even though I had been around the sex industry for a few years, no one wants to see their friend in a lewd situation, and I felt comforted knowing that it was quite the opposite.

I also understood why people can’t quite grasp the concept of prostitution. I remember feeling relieved that I am only intimate with my partner, and grateful that the intimacy we share is genuine. That being said, sex and intimacy are different for everybody, and just because I wouldn’t be able to do an escort’s job doesn’t make their work inherently wrong.

CV: What practical advice would you give to young photographers wanting to tell a difficult story like prostitution?

AV: Spend a lot of time getting to know your subjects. Listen to what they have to say while keeping an open mind. It’s normal to have preconceived notions about a certain subject but nothing is ever what it seems.

Photos by Alicia Vera

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